The Swerve

How the World Became Modern

Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
The Swerve
In this book the author transports readers to the dawn of the Renaissance and chronicles the life of an intrepid book lover who rescued the Roman philosophical text On the Nature of Things from certain oblivion. In this work he has crafted both a work of history and a 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.

Publisher: New York : W.W. Norton, c2011
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 0393064476
Branch Call Number: 940.21 G
Characteristics: 356 p., [8] p. of plates : col. ill. ; 25 cm.


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Jun 05, 2014
  • mccann98 rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

An excellent history/exploration of how the world transitioned from the ancient or medieval way of thinking to the modern thought. A history of how one classical piece of literature, and one school of ancient philosophy came to shape the modern conceptualization of the world.

Feb 11, 2014
  • BlueHippo rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

Excellent book. A wonderful combination of history, biography, adventure, and philosophy. The end of the book should settle once and for all the fantasy that the founding fathers of the USA were all Christians.

Feb 06, 2013
  • sess430 rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

At first the book seemed to have a soporific effect, but when the story focused with more detail on the life & historical context of Poggio Bracciolini, it became very interesting ~ with colorful accounts of events & people. Also, it was informative to learn the original tenets of epicurism. For help with names (like the long Italian ones), I recommend the good website, for pronunciations of words from foreign languages. Mr. Greenblatt's concluding pages are very powerful, worthy of rereading.

Dec 10, 2012
  • ricardamundo rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

A great telling of the story of Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" and the influence it had on thought, philosophy and religion. A difficult and challenging subject presented in a highly readable manner. Loved the sweep of history and the links across time. The Catholic Church does not fare well. This book will make you want to learn more.

Oct 31, 2012
  • wac6 rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

Quick read, fun read. Greenblatt's really strong when writing about Poggio Bracciolini and 15th Century Italy. The final two chapters are weak. Interesting that he leaves to the first endnote any discussion of the relative merits of different English translations of the Lucretius poem at the center of the book.

Oct 24, 2012
  • chatkanuda rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

Greenblatt is a skilled storyteller, and somewhat to my surprise, this was a page turner. But that swiftness was also unsatisfying when more detail, analysis, and insight were needed. As such, this is an excellent introduction to the great swaths of history and ideas Greenblatt deals with, an invitation to dig deeper where he hasn't fully done so.

Jul 30, 2012
  • andiandi rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

Extremely interesting book, if long winded in Papal politics- though I suppose that is the point. I wonder how different the world would be if the Catholic Church didn't attempt to acquire and hold everything that contradicts it's beliefs? Looking forward to reading Lucretius.

Jul 24, 2012
  • richibi rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

makes you absolutely want to run out and read at least Lucretius if not as well the other Greek and Roman authors, though I would've preferred a style from the writer more reminiscent of these earlier luminaries to tell the story, a disordered jumble of workaday words in inelegant constructions in chapters randomly assorted and carelessly conceived make for a singularly unimpressive introduction to an apparently sublime poet

Jun 05, 2012
  • jmikesmith rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Throughout history, people have tried to suppress ideas that ran counter to the popular ideologies and philosophies of the day. Sometimes, ideas that were thought to be lost for almost 1500 years are found tucked away in a musty monastery. This is the story on one such set of ideas.

In the early 15th century, a newly-unemployed papal secretary went book-hunting in monasteries. He was hunting for books long thought to be lost. What he found contributed to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This book hunter found a copy of a copy of a copy of a Latin poem, from decades before Jesus, by Lucretius, which extolled the even older philosophy of the ancient Greek thinker Epicurus. The ideas, told in what is reported to be exquisitely beautiful and sensual Latin, included: evolution, atheism, atomism (the idea that everything is made up of tiny particles called atoms), there is no life after death, and the pursuit of pleasure is the highest good to which people can aspire.

In the deeply Christian Europe of the Middle Ages, where punishing oneself and seeking pain to emulate the life and death of Jesus were seen to be the highest virtues, these ideas were dangerously radical. Yet they caught on with thinkers and scientists and contributed to a re-discovery of what the ancients had known and to new discoveries, new technologies, and new ways of thinking about life.

Stephen Greenblatt has written an excellent account of the poem, the man who found it again, and the times it which it was written and re-discovered. Part history, part biography, and part philosophy, this book entertains and astounds. It conjures up a remarkable picture of medieval Europe, people living amid the ruins of ancient civilizations and knowing that life used to be better, richer. A Europe on the cusp of a re-birth in the belief that pleasure is admirable, that life here is more important than life in the hereafter.

May 09, 2012
  • pridi_o rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

I loved the idea, historic details, values and language. I enjoyed tremendously the first two hundred pages, but then the rest of the book (the other two hundred pages) was just the repeat of the first part and I wondered why that? Of course it spoiled the overall impression of the book. It is hard to rate this book, potentially it is excellent. The wordiness, redundancies and the weak logic of narrative bring the rating down.

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