The Swerve

  • by Stephen Greenblatt
  • Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
  • 9 hrs and 44 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, General Nonfiction, 2012
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.

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What the Critics Say

"More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian." (Kirkus Reviews)
"In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth." (Publishers Weekly)
“Pleasure may or may not be the true end of life, but for book lovers, few experiences can match the intellectual-aesthetic enjoyment delivered by a well-wrought book. In the world of serious nonfiction, Stephen Greenblatt is a pleasure maker without peer.” (Newsday)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

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.
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- Ethan M.

Note to self: Read more Greenblatt

Ah, Stephen Greenblatt. How much I prefer you to Harold Bloom. You prove things, not just assert them. You have a clear narrative, though not lacking in complexity. I really have to read more Greenblatt.

The title is a bit misleading. How the world became modern? In what way? The narrative of this history revolves around the book On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. It is a beautifully written Latin poem that describes a world view familiar to modern-day atheists, philosophical Buddhists, and physics lovers. All the universe made up of moving atoms that form and fall apart and form other things. That being true, there are no gods, so enjoy the life you have before it is over forever. Don't mistake this for the reputation of Epicureanism of mindless pleasure. Real Epicureanism is more Buddhist, attempting to take pleasure in the now without excess, mindful that life has disappointments.

This text nearly disappeared during the Medieval period until a Renaissance book lover found it and saved it from obscurity and destruction.

The narrative first follows the philosophy in the ancient world, its restoration by the Italian book collector, then its spread in intellectual life throughout the centuries, influencing many writers and thinkers, including the American Founding Fathers.

This is a compelling read. Though 400+ pages, you don't feel them. It moves quickly, with stories, anecdotes, analysis, and appreciation of the fortunes of history and the beauty of an old poem.
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- Lisa

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-29-2011
  • Publisher: Recorded Books