April Book Review

This month’s review is by Tom Tomlinson

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

If you like the idea that an idea can reshape how we think about the world, then this is your kind of read: indeed, The Swerve is a book about a book, its unlikely discovery after nearly 1000 years of being forgotten in or intentionally cloistered in a cloister, and the man who discovered it. The book — in fact, the book described in The Swerve, was a hand-written manuscript — Gutenberg’s mechanical printing appeared at the end of the fifteenth century — that Greenblatt hails to carry us to the notion of the modern was entitled On the Nature of Things written by the Classical Roman known as Lucretius.

The ideas advanced by Lucretius were in Greenblatt’s mind, a tidy summary of what would come to be what we all learned in our high school western civ courses, the Renaissance. Lucretian notions that seem so common and obvious to us now ranged from novel to heretical to the prevailing Christian understanding of the world. Chief among Lucretius’s ideas was that there was no divine plan in the creation and ordering of the universe; that the material world was composed of atoms that constantly changed adhesions, forms and that no matter was ever lost, only reconfigured. Notions of life-after-death were anathema to Lucretius; suffering in the service of a better next life made no sense to the author. A better way to orient one’s life was in the pursuit of pleasure, friendship, and love.

Poggio Bracciolini, the Italian who made Greenblatt’s work possible, was a kind of fifteenth century Indiana Jones lite without all of the apparent nasty, dramatic set-to’s that plagued our intrepid modern Jones. Writer, policy wonk and scribe to Pope John XXIII, Poggio lost his papal gig when his boss lost his. Answering the now-what-do-I-do question, Poggio embarked on a trip in 1417 throughout central European monasteries in search of old manuscripts ripe for the copying and reselling to wealthy Italian patricians; Poggio’s reputation as a Papal scribe gained him access to countless libraries throughout Europe. What he was looking for he had no idea; what he discovered was, according to Greenblatt, the Lucretian manuscript.

Greenblatt’s publication record is lengthy, varied and unimpeachable. This Harvard renaissance scholar at home writing to his academic colleagues but he cuts us, all of us, into this read with page notes at the back so as not to injure his engaging, graceful prose.

Greenblatt won me over with the opening words of his introduction: “When I was a student…” Reading what followed in The Swerve reminded me of the joys of my student days, reading and thinking and testing my reactions to the ways I experience life. Thanks Professor Greenblatt.