Nicole Helget's Reviews > The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
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Apr 13, 12

Read in April, 2012

This book chronicles the effects of Lucretius' poem On the Nature of Things after surviving, through a series of coincidences or swerves, complete eradication by book worms, the long, damning arm of the Church, burnings, poor copying methods, and fading ink among other challenges to its survival. Lucretius, a student of Epicurean school of "seek life that is pleasurable for you and others as we, and all things, are only collisions of atoms and void, which end at life's end," wound these ideas and philosophies for living into a piece of writing that would shape the positions of people who shaped the world, including Capurnicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom faced the wrath of those who tried to keep these ideas from wide dissemination. This book mostly follows, Poggio, a papal secretary who made it his work to find and safeguard the book even while his lifestyle and ideals couldn't always match with the visions of the poem. I suppose this reading and review could be considered another example of me finding a book which reflects back to me most of the beliefs I already have about the reasons humans are here (to be nice and forward our species), what we're supposed to be doing (being nice, being environmental and humanitarian stewards), whether or not or individual lives matter (to each other, yes. to a god, no), and whether or not there is an afterlife (not in the sense so many of us hope for or fear), but I don't care. I like ideas, especially when they are delivered with story and high language in the way Greenblatt renders this book. And I like too to read about the swerves that have forwarded the best advances in science, politics, and literature and the backlashes, always fear-based, that endlessly threaten those advancements. I see now, in our society, a movement to marginalize learning in a codified effort "to protect morality" in the cries against gay marriage and the woeful wailing about the scary liberal ideas universities subject children to. As I tell my children and students, be wary of any person or entity who asks you to abandon your search for scientific, historic, or artistic understanding. This book identifies why. When I think of all the great works, paintings, books, and minds that have been burned at the stake for the cause of morality, it makes me appreciate, even more, the swerve that kept Lucretius' poem alive.
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