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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (National Book Award - Nonfiction) Hardcover – September 26, 2011


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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (National Book Award - Nonfiction) + The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics)
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Product Details

  • Series: National Book Award - Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (September 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393064476
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064476
  • ASIN: 0393064476
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (498 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #19,135 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

The Swerve is one of those brilliant works of non-fiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind.” (NPR)

“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)

“A fascinating, intelligent look at what may well be the most historically resonant book-hunt of all time.” (Booklist)

“Can a poem change the world? Harvard professor and bestselling Shakespeare biographer Greenblatt ably shows in this mesmerizing intellectual history that it can. A richly entertaining read about a radical ancient Roman text that shook Renaissance Europe and inspired shockingly modern ideas (like the atom) that still reverberate today.” (Newsweek)

“It's fascinating to watch Greenblatt trace the dissemination of these ideas through 15th-century Europe and beyond, thanks in good part to Bracciolini's recovery of Lucretius' poem.” (Salon.com)

“[The Swerve] is thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization.” (Boston Globe)

“More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian.” (starred review - Kirkus Reviews)

“The ideas in The Swerve are tucked, cannily, inside a quest narrative. The book relates the story of Poggio Bracciolini, the former apostolic secretary to several popes, who became perhaps the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His most significant find, located in a German monastery, was a copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which had been lost to history for more than a thousand years. Its survival and re-emergence into the world, Mr. Greenblatt suggests, was a kind of secular miracle.

Approaching Lucretius through Bracciolini was an ingenious idea. It allows Mr. Greenblatt to take some worthwhile detours: through the history of book collecting, and paper making, and libraries, and penmanship, and monks and their almost sexual mania for making copies of things.

The details that Mr. Greenblatt supplies throughout The Swerve are tangy and exact. He describes how one of the earliest versions of a fluid for repairing mistakes on a manuscript — Whiteout 101 — was a mixture of milk, cheese and lime. He observes the hilarious complaints that overworked monks, their hands cramped from writing, sometimes added to the margins of the texts they were copying:

'The parchment is hairy'; 'Thin ink, bad parchment, difficult text'; 'Thank God, it will soon be dark'; 'Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake give me a drink.'

On the Nature of Things was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas. It argues eloquently, Mr. Greenblatt writes, that 'there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.' Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life.

There is abundant evidence here of what is Mr. Greenblatt’s great and rare gift as a writer: an ability, to borrow a phrase from The Swerve, to feel fully 'the concentrated force of the buried past.'” (New York Times)

“In this outstandingly constructed assessment of the birth of philosophical modernity, renowned Shakespeare scholar Greenblatt deftly transports reader to the dawn of the Renaissance...Readers from across the humanities will find this enthralling account irresistible.” (starred review - Library Journal)

“Every tale of the preservation of intellectual history should be as rich and satisfying as Stephen Greenblatt's history of the reclamation and acclamation of Lucretius's De rerum natura from obscurity.” (John McFarland - Shelf Awareness)

“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.” (starred review - Publishers Weekly)

The Swerve is one of those brilliant works of non-fiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind.” (Maureen Corrigan - WHYY-FM/Fresh Air)

“But Swerve is an intense, emotional telling of a true story, one with much at stake for all of us. And the further you read, the more astonishing it becomes. It's a chapter in how we became what we are, how we arrived at the worldview of the present. No one can tell the whole story, but Greenblatt seizes on a crucial pivot, a moment of recovery, of transmission, as amazing as anything in fiction.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

“In The Swerve, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt investigates why [Lucretius' ] book nearly dies, how it was saved and what its rescue means to us.” (Sarah Bakewell - New York Times Book Reivew)

About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Shakespeare, he is the author of eleven books, including The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World; Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. He has edited seven collections of criticism, including Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. His honors include the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize, for both Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England and The Swerve, the Sapegno Prize, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Yale University Graduate School, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

More About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, he is the author of nine books, including Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Practicing New Historicism; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, and Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. He has edited six collections of criticism, is the co-author (with Charles Mee) of a play, Cardenio, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. He honors include the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize, for Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Customer Reviews

Well written, very very interesting and well researched.
Joanne Aloni
Most interesting to me was the Epicurean origins of Lucretius' idea, and the systematic suppression of the work by the Roman Catholic Church.
P. L. Carman
So many good books out there I don't want to spend my reading time on ones that aren't well written.
pipi pepper

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

458 of 486 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 20, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In the early 15th century Western Europe was just emerging from a couple of centuries of plague, famine, and conflict. Led by the city states of northern Italy, the Europeans were attempting to find their footing, and to do so they looked back 1500 years or more to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Scholarly humanists began to search out and restudy old scrolls and ancient manuscripts in order to relearn much of what had been lost during the Dark Ages. Of these none was more important than Poggio Bracciolini, a papal secretary whose Pope had been overthrown and replaced, and who dealt with his loss of power and income by searching monasteries in Germany and Switzerland for forgotten scripts. His greatest discovery was Lucretius' long poem On The Nature Of Things, which he copied and had distributed, ensuring that it became a seminal document of the emerging Renaissance.

Lucretius had been a Epicurean philosopher during the Roman Empire, who taught that the soul did not survive death and that all living things were made up tiny particles or atomi. Epicureans called on people to enjoy a good life (not a hedonistic one as is often supposed) without worrying about the wrath of God or the gods, who did not concern themselves with anything so insignificant as human affairs. This has a modern ring to us, as it should since Lucretius' writings, as Stephen Greenblatt so ably shows, helped to shape the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Lucretius' ideas were unwelcome to many in the Church hierarchy, and those who followed his ideas were often in danger of perseuction or even execution.

Stephen Greenblatt has produced a fascinating chronicle of Lucretius, Poggio, and the worlds they inhabited.
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715 of 794 people found the following review helpful By Harold Kirkpatrick on October 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The thesis and tone of The Swerve echo Jacob Burckhardt's now somewhat discredited 19th century characterization of the Italian Renaissance with its celebrations of life and beauty as a "return to paganism" (as though the Middle Ages didn't have its festivals and gai savoir). Burckhardt's book may be outdated as history but is nevertheless a masterpiece of Romantic historiography that repays rereading. Greenblatt is no Burckhardt, but it sounds like his book will also be valuable - even only insofar as it is successful in familiarizing contemporary readers with the role of characters like the colorful Poggio Bracciolini, Lorenzo Valla and their manuscript-hunting Humanist confreres, many of whom were employees, like Poggio himself, of the Papal court.

Greenblatt seriously overstates the role of Lucretius, whose influence, until the mid to late 18th century was arguably quite marginal. Peter Gay's The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, unfortunately not mentioned by Greenblatt, deals at length with the influence of Lucretius on French Enlightenment thinkers, many of whom really were "pagans", i.e., materialists and epicureans. The standard view, of course, is that a revival of Platonic idealism, not of "pagan" materialism, was responsible for the Renaissance preoccupation with beauty and harmony.

Poggio's fifteenth century discovery of the manuscript of Lucretius's De rerum natura was not commented on much by Renaissance humanists, who confined themselves to remarks about Lucretius's grammar and syntax. It was printed in 1511 with a commentary by Denys Lambin, who termed Lucretius's Epicurean ideas "fanciful, absurd, and opposed to Christianity" -- and Lambin's preface remained standard until the nineteenth century.
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Chris Thompson on October 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I just finished "The Swerve" and must say I am a bit perplexed.

In the Preface, the author describes the reasons for his deep emotional attachment to "On the Nature of Things" by Lucretius. My sense is that he let this emotional attachment get the better of him.

On page 68 (of the e-book) he states that "On the Nature of Things" is the work of a disciple who is transmitting ideas that had been developed centuries earlier. Epicurus, Lucretia's philosophical messiah, ......". Throughout the book, more reference seems to be made to Epicurus than Lucretius by the people that the author wants to propose as having been influenced by Lucretius. The final statement of the book, as if to emphasize how much the world has been changed by Lucretius is Thomas Jefferson's statement that he is an Epicuran.

So this reader is left with the question of why the focus on Lucretius? The answer to me can only be that the author found a good story in the discovery of a copy of the manuscript by a papal secretary, Poggio (and not the only one as seems to be alleged in the beginning - another was later found). And a good story it is, weaving us through the inner working of monasteries, the copying of manuscripts, papal intrigue, "book hunters", and the preservation of "pagan" manuscripts in Europe. What the author failed to do for this reader is convince me that "On the Nature of Things" caused, much less was significant to, the Renaissance.
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