If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I have recently been extolling the virtues of libraries. They’re in every major neighbourhood of your city, they have books, movies, CDs, ebooks and even audiobooks, and, most important, they’re FREE.
Okay, you may need to wait a little to get a really hot title (I’m 85th on the waitlist for Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman), but that’s the beauty of books: they’re there pretty much forever.
I’d been waiting for a few weeks to get Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, but I’m quite happy I did. I finished it in three days, and I’m writing this review before I bring it back to the library for another lucky fellow/fellowette to have the pleasure of reading it.
Stephen Greenblatt is a famous Shakespeare scholar and the general editor of your Norton Anthology of English Literature which you haven’t opened since your first-year English course. He is well-read, infinitely knowledgeable about his topic, and quite entertaining.
The Swerve isn’t your typical academic criticism. It’s more the historical journey of a single text, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, from its origins in Epicurean philosophy, through its loss and rediscovery by an obscure Florentine scribe named Poggio Bracciolini, to its influence on Enlightenment thinking and all the way through to modern philosophy.
In the winter of 1417, Poggio Bracciolini rode through the wooded hills and valleys of southern Germany toward his distant destination, a monastery reputed to have a cache of old manuscripts. As must have been immediately apparent to the villagers looking out at him from the doors of their huts, the man was a stranger.
As someone who has, in a distant past, studied the humanities, including On the Nature of Things, this book was a fascinating look into an unknown part (to me at least) of bibliographic history: how classical manuscripts were produced, copied and recovered after the Middle Ages. When we read Plato or Homer or Virgil, do we ever ask how the text has survived through the millennia?The Swerve digs deep into that history, without ever being dry or academic, and tells you the story of a text. It’s fascinating.
It’s a difficult task to weave together the history of a text with the history of his discoverer, but Greenblatt did a great job linking them together. Although focused on a single text, The Swerve really surveys the evolution of an entire mode of thinking from ancient Greece to the 20th century. If you thought that old Greek and Roman texts are basically curiosities only interesting to thick-glassed scholars toiling away in a dusty library basements, think again. On the Nature of Things has influenced philosophers, scientists and thinkers as varied as Copernicus and Galileo, Thomas More, Darwin the grandfather and even American founding fathers Jefferson and Adams.
More than fifty manuscripts of De rerum natura from the fifteenth century survive today–a startlingly large number, though there must have been many more. Once Gutenberg’s clever technology was commercially established, printed editions quickly followed. The editions were routinely prefaced with warnings and disavowals.
If you have an interest in literary history, bibliography, archival research, Greek and Roman antiquities, the Renaissance and 15th century papal history, I strongly suggest this book. It’s a quick read (250 pages or so of actual text) and it kept me more interested than many novels I have read lately.
Do you wonder how the world became modern? This book doesn’t explain it all, but it does give you an insight into one text that contained the seeds of modernity.You've just read READ: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt on Read, Write, Live by Anabelle. Please leave a comment and share your thoughts!