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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  29,004 ratings  ·  2,848 reviews
One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both 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.

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirti
Paperback, 356 pages
Published September 4th 2012 by W. W. Norton Company (first published September 26th 2011)
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Jeffrey Keeten
May 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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 t
Richard Derus
Jan 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been revised and can now be seen at Shelf Inflicted (a Group Blog).

Changed my life forever, did this book.

Reposting the body of the review.
De rerum natura was a long narrative poem expounding Epicurean philosophy that was written in the first century before the common era. I am told by those possessed of sufficient Latin fluency to appreciate it that it is beautiful. I am not possessed of that level of fluency, and to me it seemed agonizingly impenetrable and obscurantist.

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
Tim O'Neill
Oct 24, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history

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 revi
Sep 20, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Atheists
But for the pagans... pain was understood not as a positive value, a stepping stone to salvation, as it was by pious Christians intent on whipping themselves, but as an evil, something visited upon rulebreakers, criminals, captives, unfortunate wretches, and - the only category with dignity - soldiers.

I went into this book convinced I was going to hate it. I mean, have you read the blurb!?!?! The back of my book says:

From the gardens of ancient Rome to the chambers of monastic scriptoria, ren
The subtitle of this book is “how the world became modern.” It imparts no such knowledge. It’s a story of the marginal liberalization of thought brought on by the rediscovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. All the business about atoms.

I didn’t learn much . Yet there’s stuff to like. Especially the story of how Epicurus and his followers were calumniated by early Christians as debauched sybarites, a smear which has no basis in fact. So vehement were early Christians against the idea of p
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
Michael Finocchiaro
Interesting book about the history of Roman poet Lucretius’ text On The Nature of Things and its rediscovery by Poggio the Florentine in the 1400s. I certainly learned a lot and enjoyed the storytelling for the most part. My one issue is that despite teasing out the influence that Lucretius had on Botticelli’s most famous surviving painting Primavera (“Spring”) (he is likely to have destroyed the twin painting Estate (“Summer”) during the dark days of Savonarola’s reign of terror in Florence), G ...more
Dec 16, 2020 rated it it was ok

When we heard from his daughter that Ted had passed away, Tony invited Ted’s Friends here in GR to pick one book out of Ted’s TBR list and read it for him sometime during this year.

I chose The Swerve – it was already in my TBR too, it was a Pulitzer price and it dealt with one, well, two of my favorite periods in history: The Renaissance and the Classical times.

How I wish Ted were still with us because I would want to discuss it with him and contrast impressions. My guess is that he would have
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
Apr 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Clif Hostetler
Dec 30, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Brad Lyerla
Jan 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE) founded a school of thought that thrived for hundreds of years during the Hellenistic and Roman periods following Plato. Only a few fragments of his writings survive today. The most complete statement of Epicureanism that has survived is a poem, ON THE NATURE OF THINGS, written by the Roman poet Lucretius. THE SWERVE is Stephen Greenblatt's account of how ON THE NATURE OF THINGS was rescued from obscurity by Poggio Bracciolini, a Vatican bureaucrat wi ...more
I jogged along easily, enjoying the scenery, taking in the weather without letting it affect me, swinging the arms, breathing, pacing myself nicely thank you. But as in a marathon (I'm told, never had such ambitions myself) there was a man with a hammer waiting at around kilometre 30. Suddenly the legs turned to lead and the breathing became laboured and all I wanted to do was to finish. And soon. Please.

I haven't managed to work out whether the brick wall I hit at the end of chapter eight was l
Jul 23, 2013 rated it did not like it
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
Aug 22, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Lisa Reads & Reviews
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 26, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Oct 06, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, audiobook
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
Feb 15, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
I came to this work, caution my armor, having heard that it was a bit speculative. I just finished reading Lucretius, and having seen that this book has been widely read, I decided it would be fun to read a modern perspective on the poet. But some speculative proposals were not the only problems with this book.

First, the title is completely misleading. "The Swerve" is a direct reference to the action Lucretius's ancient atoms commit in order to produce the physical world we see. Greenblatt spend
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
This book doesn't sound very promising--263 pages on an old Roman poem that supposedly helped the world become modern? Ho followed by hum. And yet. And yet! Stephen Greenblatt pulls it off, mixing the intrigue of personalities, the melodrama of religious fanatics, and the tides of history, seaweeds and all.

The chief player in this drama is the Florentine Poggio Bracciolini, a humanist who used his intelligence, translator skills, and wiliness to climb all the way to the top of Rome's heap, secur
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!"

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
James Murphy
Apr 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mary Ronan Drew
Nov 15, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
May 06, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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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

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