Dr. Robert Habich Recommends “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt

In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series, Dr. Habich recommends The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W. W. Norton, 2011) may seem an unlikely recommendation from someone whose academic interests place him pretty firmly in an American, nineteenth-century, Transcendental sandbox. A Renaissance scholar most recently noted for Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2005), Greenblatt recounts in The Swerve the discovery in 1417 of the lost manuscript of the Roman poet Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) and its effects upon Western thinking.  Lucretius was no poet alone; he was a revolutionary philosopher and scientist who, in a sweeping subversion of what we would now call “intelligent design,” posited a world of randomly colliding particles (we would now call them atoms) where chance was king, prayer was a waste of time, obedience to higher authority was pointless, and pleasure was legitimized.  Suppressed for over a thousand years, first by anti-Epicurean Romans, then by early Christians, and finally by a power-hungry Papacy, De rerum natura was rediscovered in a monastery in southern Germany by a wandering book hunter and former papal insider named Poggio Bracciolini, who had it transcribed and distributed just at the beginning of what we now call the humanistic revolution of the Renaissance.  

In tracing the history of this influential book, Greenblatt not only recreates the intellectual and political world of early modern Europe in which Poggio’s great adventure plays out but also looks backward to the classical antiquity that gave birth to Lucretius’s Epicurean poem and forward to a modern world created by the intellectual “swerve” that Lucretius’s neglected manuscript precipitated, including its influence on the work of such diverse figures as Jefferson, Freud, and Einstein.  The connections Greenblatt makes are erudite, unstuffy, and often convincing.

Here is reportedly the world’s shortest book review, sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “If this is the sort of book you like, you’ll like this sort of book.”  Winner of the National Book Award, the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize for an outstanding literary or linguistic study, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction, The Swerve is obviously the sort of book that lots of people like, though not all of them.  Its critics cite the faults often associated with New Historicism: speculation that backfills the argument when facts are in short supply, a too-easy preference for story-telling, and an insistence on economic and political causes for almost everything.

All true, perhaps.  Personally I found the connections to Jefferson pretty thin and the argument that De rerum natura kick-started scientific humanism–the heart of Greenblatt’s thesis, after all—to be overstated. But still: I like this sort of book. Show me a better work of history written with the atmosphere of an Umberto Eco novel, the narrative skill of Edith Wharton, and the intellectual moxie of Carl Sagan (whose classic Dragons of Eden is subtitled “speculations on the evolution of human intelligence”),  and I’ll join the naysayers.  Until then, I highly recommend you read Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Part mystery, part historical recreation, and part speculation about “how the world became modern,” Greenblatt’s smart and entertaining book crackles with the authenticity of good fiction and offers in the way we were an explanation for the way we are.

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