My seventh book in the CBR4 read was The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. I picked this up on the recommendation of a friend who figured that a librarian would want to read about a guy searching for ancient texts (they are sweet, aren’t they). I have to admit the central story didn’t grab me (I’m not big on bibliomania), but I was pulled in by Greenblatt’s attempt to connect an ancient text, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, to the marvels of the Renaissance.
Greenblatt follows the travels of Poggio Bracciolini, a Florentine book hunter, in the early 15th century as he searches the monasteries of Europe for copies of ancient Roman texts. He finds the poem On the Nature of Things written by Lucretius who had been a follower of Epicurus. Epicurean philosophy focuses on the pursuit of pleasure rather pain, a philosophy that latter is subverted to mean hedonistic partying, but had meant a focus on the simple pleasures of living life as it is. The poem discusses the existence of atoms as the basis of life and the delusions and cruelty of organized religion. The swerve is the idea that life as it is exists because of the random movement of those atoms not because of the intentional act of a distant creator. Puggio copies the book and sends it on its journey back into the world of Renaissance Italy, in a sense creating the poem’s own swerve, where, in Greenblatt’s reading, it becomes a touchstone for many great thinkers (Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Jefferson among them).
While some of his connections may be tenuous, his prose is beautiful. It is difficult for a mere librarian like me to convey the gracefulness of his writing, so let’s let Greenblatt speak for himself:
“Of course, all Poggio could hope to find were pieces of parchment, and not even very ancient ones. But for him these were not manuscripts but human voices. What emerged from the obscurity of the library was not a link in a long chain of texts, one copied from the other, but rather the thing itself, wearing borrowed garments, or even the author himself, wrapped in gravecloths and stumbling into the light” (pg 180).
How could you not love a writer that not only describes the link between text and thought so perfectly, but also can then give a slight nod to zombies? I mean really people?!
I predict this will be one of my favorite books this year. It may not be perfect in its scholarship or history, but the basic story holds well and the language is captivating. On a side note, I was introduced to Greenblatt (the actual man) at some point in the 00’s (don’t remember the exact year as I had no idea who he was). He was giving a lecture to our English Department on Shakespeare and someone thought to say “Oh, and this is our secretary.” I don’t remember who the introducer was, but that person created their own swerve as I may not have bothered to note the name when my friend mentioned the book and may have never read it. I thank them wholeheartedly for their condescension. It has introduced me to a wonderful book!