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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern Hardcover – September 26, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 696 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


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. "

A fascinating, intelligent look at what may well be the most historically resonant book-hunt of all time. "

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. "

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. "

[The Swerve] is thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization. "

More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian. --starred review"

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.' "

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"

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"

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"

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. "

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"

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"

About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (September 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393064476
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064476
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (696 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #208,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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I consider myself to be a person in the modern camp. I am non-religious, scientifically minded and a humanist and when I heard about "Swerve", I had to read it. It seemed like red meat for me. Actually it was way too much red meat.
By the time I reached half way through the book, I was feeling such rage against the Roman Catholic Church that my heart was pounding. An institution raging in obscuritanism, mass delusion,murder and suppression of the mind had blotted out the advance of Western Civilization, until a scribe found an ancient poem. I put the book down and calmed down myself. Later on, I skimmed the last half of the book.
The problem with "Swerve" is that it is a polemic and it is trying to be something else. If you want a polemic against christianity and how it has ruined Western Civilization, I recommend Friedrich Nietzsche's "The Anti-Christ". Nietzsche admitted he was writing a polemic and he was one of best polemic writers of all time. The polemical nature of this book weakens it, since it seems that the fires have to be relit constantly and you get the impression that a lot of information is being left out that does not feed the fire.
Another problem with "Swerve", is the way Lucretius is handled. His poem is treated as the only spark that ignited generations of scientific minds in Western Civilization. It is utterly too simplistic. Indeed the Catholic Church itself harbored humanists and scientific thinkers before the Reformation caused them to shamefully over react later on. The dome of Saint Peter's Basilica was not built by other worldly delusional thinkers. Did the architects of St Peter's have a copy of Lucretius with them?
"Swerve" is an interesting read, but it is like I say sometimes after seeing a movie about a historical period. If you are interested enough in the subject, go read some books on it. If you are interested in how the world became modern, you need a lot of books, not just this one.
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