The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

4.3 96
by Stephen Greenblatt
     
 

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Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction 
Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction

One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human

Overview

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction 
Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction

One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties 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, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of 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.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
…a warm, intimate…volume of apple-cheeked popular intellectual history. Mr. Greenblatt…is a very serious and often thorny scholar…But he also writes crowd pleasers…The Swerve…brings us Mr. Greenblatt in his more cordial mode. He wears his enormous erudition lightly…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."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt (Will in the World) turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth. It hinges on the recovery of an ancient philosophical Latin text that had been neglected for a thousand years. In the winter of 1417 Italian oddball humanist, smutty humorist, and apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini stumbled on Lucretius' De rerum natura. In an obscure monastery in southern Germany lay the recovery of a philosophy free of superstition and dogma. Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" harked back to the mostly lost works of Greek philosophers known as atomists. Lucretius himself was essentially an Epicurean who saw the restrained seeking of pleasure as the highest good. Poggio's chance finding lay what Greenblatt, following Lucretius himself, terms a historic swerve of massive proportions, propagated by such seminal and often heretical truth tellers as Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, and Montaigne. We even learn the history of the bookworm—a real entity and one of the enemies of ancient written-cultural transmission. Nearly 70 pages of notes and bibliography do nothing to spoil the fun of Greenblatt's marvelous tale. 16 pages of color illus. (Sept. 19)
NPR
“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.”
Newsday
“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.”
Booklist
“A fascinating, intelligent look at what may well be the most historically resonant book-hunt of all time.”
Newsweek
“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.”
Salon.com
“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.”
Boston Globe
“[The Swerve] is thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization.”
New York Times
“The ideas in The Swerve are tucked, cannily, inside a quest narrative. . . . The details that Mr. Greenblatt supplies throughout The Swerve are tangy and exact. . . . 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.'”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“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.”
John McFarland - Shelf Awareness
“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.”
Maureen Corrigan - WHYY-FM/Fresh Air
“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.”
Sarah Bakewell - New York Times Book Reivew
“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.”
Shelf Awareness
“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
WHYY-FM/Fresh Air
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
New York Times Book Reivew
“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
NPR/Fresh Air
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
Maureen Corrigan - NPR/Fresh Air
“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.”
New York Times Book Reivew - Sarah Bakewell
“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.”
Shelf Awareness - John McFarland
“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.”
NPR/Fresh Air - Maureen Corrigan
“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.”
Library Journal
Roughly 600 years ago, book hunter Poggio Bracciolini happened upon a "lost" copy of On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), a poem by Lucretius. It postulated that the world is made up of nature (atoms) and that religion is harmful and damaging to human life. Bracciolini had the manuscript copied and widely distributed. Some believe that this poem caused the world to swerve and change philosophical direction, thus beginning the Renaissance. VERDICT Whether one poem could be so influential is questionable. In addition to this overzealous history, book lovers are rewarded with brilliant descriptions of the history of books, libraries, and fascinating detail about manuscript production. Narrator Edoardo Ballerini's rather professorial presentation gives listeners the sense of participating in a one-sided lecture. ["Greenblatt's masterful account transcends (Bracciolini's) significant discovery," read the review of the National Book Award-winning Norton hc, LJ 6/15/11.—Ed.]—Susan Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., Chicago
Kirkus Reviews

Greenblatt (Humanities/Harvard Univ.;Shakespeare's Freedom,2010, etc.) makes another intellectually fetching foray into the Renaissance—with digressions into antiquity and the recent past—in search of a root of modernity.

More than 2,000 years ago, Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things, which spoke of such things as the atomic structure of all that exists, of natural selection, the denial of an afterlife, the inherent sexuality of the universe, the cruelty of religion and the highest goal of human life being the enhancement of pleasure. It was a dangerous book and wildly at odds with the powers that be through many a time period. That Greenblatt came across this book while in graduate school is a wonder, for it had been scourged, scorned or simply fallen from fashion from the start, making fugitive reappearances when the time was ripe, but more likely to fall prey to censorship and the bookworm, literally eaten to dust. In the 15th century, along came Poggio Bracciolini— humanist, lover of antiquity, former papal secretary, roving hunter of books—and the hub of Greenblatt's tale. He found the book, perhaps the last copy, in a monastery library, liked what he saw (even if he never cottoned to its philosophy) and had the book copied; thankfully, history was preserved. Greenblatt's brilliantly ushers readers into this world, which is at once recognizable and wholly foreign. He has an evocative hand with description and a liquid way of introducing supporting players who soon become principals: Democritus, Epicurius, scribe monks, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Montaigne and Darwin, to name just a few.

More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393083385
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
09/04/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
368
Sales rank:
64,800
File size:
11 MB
Note:
This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet 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.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
November 7, 1943
Place of Birth:
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Education:
B.A., Yale University, 1964; B.A., Cambridge University, 1966; Ph.D., Yale University, 1969

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Swerve 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 96 reviews.
HarryVane More than 1 year ago
This is a great short history about a long lost Roman poem that encompassed the very humanistic ideas that brought Western Europe out of the intellectual morass of Christendom and into the Renaissance and Reformation. I find great comfort reading about the importance of "a book" and the humanities that have shaped so much of our society despite the sad state of the humanities within our education system and the slow sad disappearance of the paper book. The hero of Stephen Greenblatt's work would no doubt be unsettled by the anti-intellectualism prevalent in the modern West and our complete obsession with cheap stimuli. Turn off the TV. Put the cell phone away. Find a nice quiet place to read and enjoy this wonderful book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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. Much is made of the work describing atoms, as was described previously by Leuccippus and Democritus, and that life's ultimate goal is pleasure and the avoidance of pain, Epicurus' central tenet, as being supremely influential in moving the(western)world forward in its thinking, and some of these thoughts, over 2,000 years old are quite remarkable in their prescience, but by no means unique to Lucretius. But if these thoughts were so influential in moving the Renaissance forward did some of the clearly wrong claims in "On the Nature of Things" not hinder its development? This is not addressed. Other critics have complained of its seeming anti-Catholic tone, and as a recovering Catholic, I sympathize with you. But I didn't find anything in the book unfair to the Catholic church of the time. I found the book entertaining and enlightening in many respects, so 4 stars still.
jobriant More than 1 year ago
The publisher's blurb calls this a "riveting" account of great cultural change and a "thrilling tale of discovery." While interesting, it was hardly riveting or thrilling. Rather, it was a matter-of-fact and sometimes pedantic account of the rediscovery of Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things." The author makes a less than compelling case for one of his own favorite poems changing the course of Western cultural history. I don't think it moved others as much as it did him. An interesting read, but not compelling.
Psocoptera More than 1 year ago
Even if you didn't sleep thru Western History in college this book will inform and entertain. The author weaves a tale of how a relatively unknown Florentine scholar rescues a literary work by Lucretius that inspired many more Renassaince works. Lucretius's poem has amazingly modern ideas but were it not for a random "swerve" of chance it could have been lost forever, and perhaps a seminal spark out of the dark ages. This book will make you laugh and make you think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent short history of literary tolerance (or intolerance) wrapped within the story of a Fourteenth Century book hunter. Should be a must read so that we avoid banning books because we disagree with its content.
Go4Jugular More than 1 year ago
I started this novel with great reluctance - an obscure book hunter in the 1400s, searching for a poem I'd not heard of by an ancient author whose name I did not recognize. However, I found it to be surprisingly, and enjoyably, readable. The history, politics, and religion of the time are lucidly described. The education and life of the book hunter give a strong sense of his character (and who can dislike a guy named Poggio?). The core themes of the poem are outlined with the correct amount of detail, and the net result is an interesting, entertaining story of how modern secular precepts emerged from the intolerant theocratic European societies of the Middle Ages. One might argue with the primacy the author claims for the role of the poem, but the journey he takes the reader on illustrates how many of our modern social ideals evolved.
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
There are been numerous works of historical non-fiction, especially in recent times, that attempt to pinpoint some pivotal event and/or person and attribute to that event or person great significance. These are often fascinating tales as much for the insight they might give us into the course of history as they are often tales of intrigue, mystery, luck and persistence. Stephen Greenblatt's The Serve is one such book and an outstanding example of the genre. It tells the story of one Titus Lucretius Carus, a first-century BC (55 to 99 BC) Roman philosopher and disciple of Epicurus whose single surviving work of poetry, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) languished in obscurity for nearly a millennium and a half, before it was rediscovered and broadcast around Europe in the 15th century by a equally obscure (at least these days) former papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio sat right at the apex of temporal and spiritual power while in Rome, but had been cut loose and out of a job after Pope John XXIII was deposed (the Pope's number was recycled 500 years later). In the spirit of the era, he decided to spend his time north of the Alps hunting for ancient Greek and Roman texts. Poggio was not only very good at library hunting and Latin grammar, his was one of the best hand-writing in Europe during these pre-printing-press times. He was, therefore, well suited to both understand what he found, copy it, and, with his connections among the intelligentsia of the times, distribute it. Poggio came across De Rerum Natura quite by chance in a Benedictine library. He immediately realized the significance of the message that the manuscript contained within its exquisite poetry - not just "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die", but, much more, that the very substance of your soulless being (atoms) will disperse and recombine (swerve) in the future as it has throughout the infinity of time. Lucretius' dangerous and heretical message eventually earned it a prominent place on the Index, but not until copies had become fairly widespread both because of its philosophical message and on account of its outstanding Latin grammar. The book ably justifies its enigmatic title, but not its sub-title. On The Nature of Things was undoubtedly a component in the development of modern chemistry and physics, and its rejection of everything supernatural likely impacted the course of philosophy right up to the present time. But atomic theory and the rest had a wider intellectual base than just this poem which the author fails to explore in depth. Greenblatt's story of the discovery of De Rerum Natura is excellent, but his follow up on the later impact comes across as a breathless afterthought. The Swerve is thoroughly researched with nearly 50 pages of notes, 25-plus page bibliography, index and illustrations. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had a hard time tearing myself away from The Swerve. While I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative about the discovery and recovery of the lost manuscript, which adroitly provides insight into the intellectual, religious and physical worlds of the late Middle Ages, the best part is the thoughtful and concise exposition of Epicureanism. I suspect this cogent 2500 year old rational humanist philosophy of Metaphysics and Ethics has long been suppressed or misrepresented by various religious establishments, and becoming familiar with it is like inhaling a breath of fresh air.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To Quench the Intellect, The Swerve Succeeds Written by Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, captures the story of Poggio Bracciolini, an avid book hunter and his chance discovery that influenced the creation of the modern world. He saves the last copy of Roman philosopher Titus Lucretius’s, On the Nature of Things. Within this poem are the ideas that changed human thought and inspired some of the most impactful individuals of the millennial.  Greenblatt follows Poggio’s discovery, tracing its impact throughout history. He makes sure to include context and clarity, making the story easier to understand. I particularly liked the inclusion of the historical background of books beginning with the Roman Empire and Paganism. He illustrates the ancient world stating, “A fate no doubt preferable to being thrown to the lions, laughter in the ancient world nonetheless had very sharp teeth.”  It is a mesmerizing and rich book, maintaining a satisfying combination of history and intrigue. The language is gratifying, “A comparably capacious embrace of beauty and pleasure – an embrace that somehow extends to death as well as life, to dissolution as well as creation…”  In his writing, Greenblatt causes the reader to reconsider the importance of books and to view life with a more philosophical approach. We are reminded of the value of ancient knowledge and preservation of intellect when he says, “through reading literature we can make ghosts speak to us, and we can speak back to them.”  I highly recommend The Swerve to book lovers or historians, who are interested in reading a challenging novel that will recalibrate your thinking and leave you contemplating the war of beliefs.  Greenblatt’s passion is clearly evident; he is an exceptional writer and feels strongly about the importance of these ancient manuscripts.  Even in simple statements such as, “Poems are difficult to silence,” or “I began with the desire to speak with the dead,” he makes an impression. It is enlightening and eye opening. This book will most definitely make you think. 
Slowsailor More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written account of the discovery and influence of an ancient Greek scroll "On the Nature of Things". The astounding part is how its influence spread throughout Renaissance europe, and how the boundaries between thinkers even then were small and porous. Once the idea is introduced, tracing through the intellectual, physical, and spiritual history of western thought truly illustrates a swerve away from superstition toward the modern world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author takes too many liberrties with verbage. While not a new subject, atom theory would have survived without copies of the original, with or without acceptance of a creator. Much credit due author for his exausting research.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Intelligent, interesting and a very new look at the Middle ages
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Foreword had me holding my breath. Greenblatt opened with a pomposity that threatened to be relentlessly unbearable, but I understood by the next chapter that this was the perfect set-up. The rest of the book has proven to be a fascinating tour of Graeco-Roman-Italian, and then world cultural history. It tool me out of my modern world while explaining why I live in it. I can't wait to re-read it so I can take the time out of the straight-ahead narrative to ruminate amongst the many enriching footnotes.