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National Book Award, Nonfiction, 2012
Renowned historian Stephen Greenblatt’s works shoot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. With The Swerve, Greenblatt transports listeners to the dawn of the Renaissance and chronicles the life of an intrepid book lover who rescued the Roman philosophical text On the Nature of Things from certain oblivion.
Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic by Lucretius—a beautiful poem containing the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.
The copying and translation of this ancient book—the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age—fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare, and even Thomas Jefferson.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Ethan M. on 05-01-12
Very compelling history, a less compelling thesis
The Swerve is a Pultizer-prize winner, and justifiably so. In a compact way, it manages to tell fascinating, well-researched, stories of both the Epicurean philosophers during the Roman Empire, and the intellectual and religious struggles of the late Middle Ages. These two threads are both really well done, and full of fascinating and illuminating details: monks were not allowed to discuss the books they copied, Epicurus presaged our modern understanding of atoms and evolution, the Papal secretary wrote a joke book, and so on. Greenblatt just does a wonderful job in illuminating these time periods, and how they relate to our own way of thinking. Similarly, the reader is excellent, and the many languages invoked in the book flow naturally from him.
The only downside, and it is a small one, is in the argument itself, that the discovery of the poem "On the Nature of Things" was a critical event in that led to the world becoming modern. I was convinced that the rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly one of the elements that led to the "swerve" and the Renaissance, but there are already other forces at work, many alluded to in the book, that play at least as big a role. However, Greenblatt really wants to make the poem central, though, so we get a somewhat more evasive account of other factors, such as the popularity of humanism, that were also important. As a result, the book becomes a little strained in its main argument, but it doesn't detract from a wonderful historical account. Greenblatt uses all of his considerable ability to make his argument, one that you may or may not buy, but that you are certain to enjoy if you like Medieval, Roman, or intellectual history.
135 of 143 people found this review helpful
By A reader on 05-20-12
Too many swerves
Truth be told, I have not quite finished the book, I have read about 3/4 of it, and I am running a bit out of steam. Unless the author is.
The Swerve is amazing in some regards, but it is also problematic, at least for me.
First let me say that the narrator is perfect. In addition to having a beautiful enunciation and pace, he obviously knows Italian, convincingly integrating all these Italian names in the English text. (I am French, and too often cringe at the French pronunciation of some otherwise excellent narrators).
The rationale for the book, the history of the discovery and rediscovery of the ground breaking On The Nature of Things, written c. 50 b.c.e by Roman philosopher Lucretius, is fascinating. My jaw dropped when The Swerve first revealed what was in that ancient poem of which I knew nothing. (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't read it yet.)
The historical and sociological backgrounds are fascinating. I have a passion for the history of books as objects, and that was honey to my ears. You will learn a huge amount about bookmaking, the scribal profession, the importance of lettering, as well as the role of Christianity and the Church on culture, knowledge, science, taste, sex, love, pleasure, pain... in brief, on Western human LIFE. You'll learn how all of the above is connected to books, libraries, collections... and politics, wars, papacy, schisms, heresy.... and then some.
And this is where, in my view, the Swerve puts you on info overload. Don't get me wrong. It is ALL interesting. And I want to hear it all. But maybe not in one single book, the premise of which was to tell me the story of an ancient manuscript. The background too often takes center stage, and feels like a massive digression. He could almost have written one book with each of those digressions into the societal history of the time.
Another problem with the Swerve, which is related to the volume of information it contains, is the time lime. Until the narration settles on the life of the genial Poggio Bracciolini in 15th century Italy, the first 1/4 of the narration repeatedly shifts between Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Renaissance, making the sequence of events rather confusing.
I am at the point in the story when Poggio has died, and I find myself loosing interest in the narrative. The author had succeeded in making Poggio so real, that I felt I was reading a novel. Without Poggio, I find the Swerve to sound a bit more like a history textbook. Maybe I am only suffering from "Poggio withdrawal". I will finish it. Maybe it will pick up steam in a while.
Overall, I highly recommend the Swerve. It is very well written. It does not feel like a theses. The language is elegant and accessible. What you'll learn about The Nature of Things alone is worth the read.
78 of 83 people found this review helpful