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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  13,948 ratings  ·  1,584 reviews
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...more
Hardcover, 1st Edition, 356 pages
Published September 26th 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 2011)
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Community Reviews

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Jeffrey Keeten
Dec 04, 2013 Jeffrey Keeten rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Jeffrey by: Richard Derus
"When we say...that pleasure is the end and aim of life, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; i...more
Two thousand years ago a Roman named Lucretius wrote a poem that described a universe guided by physical laws rather than the whims of mystical deities and also advised that people should pursue happiness rather than spend their lives trying to appease gods who don’t exist . As I write this in 2012 certain parts of the world have been rioting and people are dying because some felt that a You Tube video insulted their religion. My own country has a constant political tug of war between the people...more
Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways
This review has been revised and can now be seen at Shelf Inflicted (a Group Blog).

Changed my life forever, did this book.
Riku Sayuj

The Anti-Climactic Swerve

Greenblatt is a good story-teller and delivers good entertainment value here, but not much informative or educational value, except as an enticing short introductory to Lucretius, Bruno and Montaigne.

As Greenblatt acknowledges, there is no single explanation for the emergence of the Renaissance and the release of the forces that have shaped our own world. Despite this awareness, he has tried to trace out The Swerve - “of how the world swerved in a new direction” by tell...more
Usually five stars is my rating for a classic I read that was everything I hoped it would be. Nonfiction only gets five stars if it's very special. Once or twice a year. This book is great.

It's a microhistory; that's a book that takes a little niche in history, and generally uses that niche to jump around and explore a bunch of different eras through a specific lens. Salt is a great example, although not a great book. This book uses Lucretius' 50 BCE The Nature of Things as its lens, and it jump...more
Clif Hostetler
This is a book about the philosophical epic poem De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things") by Lucretius, written circa first century BC. It tells of its loss in Medieval times and later rediscovery during the Renaissance.

The title, The Swerve, is used (in translation) by Lucretius to describe the unpredictable movements by which particles collide and take on new forms. The rediscovery of Lucretius, it is suggested, was a kind of "swerve" which helped to create the new cultural forms of the Re...more
First, the title is really dumb. And both sides of the colon. The Swerve? Even after reading the book and having it explained to me, I still find it off-putting. And I have a problem with titles which add, after the colon, some phrase of puffery. Usually it's how something or someone (_________) Changed the World or Saved Civilization, even if (_________)'s accomplishment was much more modest. This book would tell us How the World Became Modern. But the World is a very big place. And some of it...more
Courtney Johnston
I think Stephen Greenblatt is a tremendously intelligent man, and a gifted writer. I also think 'The Swerve: How the Renaissance began' is frightfully oversold by its title and blurb.

One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted 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.


The copying and translation
Tim O'Neill

A dubious thesis propped up by selective evidence and punctuated by digressions that were often only tenuously connected to the book's argument. Greenblatt massively overstates Epicurean philosophy's significance in the ancient world and his bold claims for the influence of Lucretius' poem in the Renaissance are rarely supported by the evidence he presents to any sufficient degree. Worst of all is his bizarre caricatures of the Medieval period - he doesn't seem to know the Twelfth Century reviv...more
Chance Maree
The Swerve is a romantic tale of a book lover, but it is so much more. True--it's a tale of passion and sacrifice, but also of fanaticism and philosophical determination. The war of beliefs that rages today is not new, but is merely a continuation of fear versus reason, and belief versus logic. The violence we see between ourselves stem from the same ignorance and hatred, fear and exercise of domination. Heretics who believed in atoms and the end of the soul were burned at the stake, after tortu...more
Sep 04, 2013 Henry rated it 1 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: No one
Stephen Greenblatt is a literary scholar specializing in Shakespeare. He is also a cultured despiser of Christianity; indeed, it appears, of all religion. For him, the world become modern is the world discarding God; the means by which it became modern was the discovery and dissemination of Lucretius' De rerum natura in the Renaissance. From it we learned, he says, that the world is made up of atoms colliding at random, forming and reforming objects, including whatever passes for the human soul,...more
THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt is the story of the discovery of Lucretius' ancient poem On the Nature of Things in 1417. The thousand year old Greek manuscript was written over by Catholic scribes to prevent the humanistic ideas of Epicurus from challenging the Church litergy. It is the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a Vatican scribe relieved of his duties when the corrupt pope he served was sent to prison. Poggio sets off from Rome to remote monasteries to recover a...more
Fascinating. A manuscript copy of a poem by the ancient Roman author Lucretius is discovered in a 15th-century German monastery by the personal secretary of a disgraced and deposed pope. The man’s name is Poggio Basciolini and he is unusual for his time: driven by curiosity, when curiosity is not considered a virtue but a vice, fascinated with the ideas of ancient and pagan Greece and Rome, a dangerous hobby in Poggio’s time, heretical even. Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things, is striking...more
On the Nature of Things by Lucretius was one of my favorite books I read when I was an undergraduate philosophy student. Perhaps it helped that my professor was a thin man, with a sprawling beard, and intense green eyes, who would shriek the lines of the poem like a Puritan preacher. Fortunately, Stephen Greenblatt cannot take away my experience of reading Lucretius. Much of his book is speculative (if he was here then he probably would have gone to this monastery, and while there, he probably w...more
Mary Ronan Drew
Supposing you were fluent in ancient and modern Latin as well as French, Spanish, and Italian, and of course Greek; that you had trained yourself to be focused and swift at your work and to make a minimum of errors; and further that your handwriting was acknowledged to be particularly clear and elegant.

Nowadays you would have a lengthy career in valet parking to look forward to. But in the early 15th century you might find yourself as the equivalent of senior speechwriter for the pope. This was...more
Major disappointment, this book. First, the title and subtitle suggest that the rediscovery of the manuscript of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things had a major influence on Renaissance thinking. Greenblatt does not make his case on this, in fact, offers only the palest of evidence: a sentence here or there from a handful of Renaissance types. It's as though he came up with an idea, started doing the research, found out the thesis didn't wash, but wrote the book anyway. The misguided ideas about...more
This book is OK overall, no more, and IS deserving of the criticism Greenblatt has gotten, for overstating his case and more.

Greenblatt's good part is explaining how Poggio came across the book, his general hunting for books, what it was like to be an early Renaissance non-clerical humanist and similar things.

The not so good is overstating his case, and getting some things wrong, incomplete or unexplained.

First, the inventors of atomic theory, Democritus and Leucippus were pre-Epicurean and even...more
James Murphy
However beautifully told--and it is--I think the main thrust of Greenblatt's history, that the discovery in 1417 of Lucretius's long lost poem On the Nature of Things changed the course of history might be a little overstated. We were going to arrive at who we are without Lucretius and I have reservations about saying the rediscovery of him and his philosophically enlightened poem by Bracciolini on the cusp of the Renaissance speeded up the acquiring of knowledge or helped beat back the tides of...more
That this mediocre book won a Pulitzer Prize substantially diminishes for me the significance of Pulitzer Prizes.

There are two tangentially connected stories here, which Greenblatt tries to weave together. One is a popular, personalized history of the medieval Florentine humanist and bookhunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who is Greenblatt's subject by virtue of being the person rediscovered the book De rerum natura, known in English as On the Nature of Things, by the Epicurean Roman philosopher-poet...more
I'm very ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, it was an intriguing glimpse into the 15th-century searches for classical manuscripts via the discovery of Lucretius' poem De rerum natura by a relatively obscure papal secretary. It expanded my knowledge of antipopes, humanism, and - obviously - Epicureanism.

But on the other hand, I found the book to be deeply flawed in two significant ways. First, Greenblatt seems to hold bizarre prejudices against the Christian church. For example (and th...more
Others who were disappointed by this book can express the reasons far better than I could. If you have no experience with the ancient philosophers, you might find this interesting. If you have a mild interest in medieval or Renaissance history you may find this book interesting. Although, your interest would be better served by an actual historian. I give it 2 stars because I am soft and love the classical world and those individuals throughout history who have derived inspiration from the class...more
Reality is a mess of conflicting details, and history surges forward like a wave breaking where, at any one time, there are only slightly more elements going forward than are going up and down or even backwards. In other words, we reduce a complex history to cartoon sketches: noble Rome; ignorant Middle Ages; religious Renaissance; until science gave us atomic theory and a way to live that doesn't require a God, people were pious, ignorant, and unquestioning. The difference between historians an...more
Robert Pannell
Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt reconstructs history by showing the reader the reciprocal effect history and literature has on each other. Greenblatt re-imagines a time when human civilization was emerging from the darkness by reaching back to the past and uncovering the creation of the Renaissance and the Humanist’s movement. What Greenblatt initially reveals is the beginning of the Early Modern Period throug...more
By the time this book came off of hold, I had forgotten what it was about. But it was easy to figure it out. I think it was NPR that had done a piece on this magical ancient poem, lost for hundreds of years - resurfaced by the work of a rabid book searcher - which basically described such modern ideas as atoms, evolution, atheism, and no life of any sort after death - Lucretius' On the Nature of Things. And yet mostly I found this book a bore. And with two copies of On the Nature of Things in th...more
A fascinating book in a lot of ways, a relatively easy read, and very informative about church politics in the 15th century. It just isn't what I expected it to be--a discussion of the thought and influence of Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things. Actually, it does finally become that in the last 100 pages, and in spite of a little simplifying, it's a very good summary. I just expected more. Mostly the book is the story of one Poggio Bracciolini, private secretary to a pope, who was an avid b...more
This is an interesting book, primarily about the poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. Much of the book is describes the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a very unusual man for his time; he was a classical scholar, who searched abbeys for rare books. In the early 15th century, he discovered On the Nature of Things and re-copied and translated the poem. Despite the fact that the poem was heretical to the Catholic Church, Bracciolini helped to distribute the poem, which gradually liberalized the p...more
Erik Simon
An absolute delight of a book. And here's my question: Lucretius writes a poem fifty years before Jesus, and in that poem he accurately discusses everything from atoms to DNA to evolution to how religions can't be trusted because they always rely on a parent torturing a son. One copy of the poem miraculously survives 1400 years to be discovered in some remote monastery in Germany by a guy who was the top secretary to the popes. The Catholic Church, of course, had abolished the book and the study...more
This book has several purposes, and I think it's only successful in one of them. Greenblatt wants the reader to appreciate Lucretius, and that's good, and I think he pulls that off. Greenblatt also wants you to think that Lucretius made us "modern," and that's silly, and he fails. What he really does is show us that "modern" (for him) means pleasure-seeking, "rational" (i.e., preferring science to religion), and free of anxiety. As you can see, we're only "modern" in the first of those senses.

Before reading this book, I hadn't thought much about the renaissance. Sure, a few college French courses helped drive home the point that it literally means "rebirth," and I kind of knew that old books were involved, but I didn't think much about the logistics. I imagined ancient texts were found in much the same way anything else gets found, as in "Oh, by the way, I was going through storage looking for the Christmas decorations, and guess what I found: some poem by this dude Lucretius!"

Aug 23, 2014 KatieMc rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone willing to wake up and smell the coffee
I am blown away. Not so much by Poggio and his book hunting bounty, although that was interesting and gives me an appreciation for what does remain of ancient texts. I now take great pleasure in calling myself an Epicurean, which has greater meaning than just atheism, and sounds much nicer too.
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Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, he is the author of nine books, including Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Practicing New Historicism; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of t...more
More about Stephen Greenblatt...
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare Hamlet in Purgatory Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World Shakespearean Negotiations (New Historicism Studies in Cultural Poetics, #84)

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“The exercise of reason is not available only to specialists; it is accessible to everyone.” 12 likes
“The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.” 12 likes
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