Book Review: The Swerve

The SwerveThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
368 pp. W.W. Norton & Company $16.95

Poetry can change the world. Just ask Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC). Or, if that thought fills you with vague foreboding, read instead Stephen Greenblatt’s history, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

Read it to learn how a two-thousand-year-old poem, On the Nature of Things, formed our understanding of the modern world. Read it to enjoy a suspense-filled tale of how this poem was almost lost–and how it came to be rediscovered in the 1400s by a book-hunter riding his burro through the forests and valleys of southern Germany. (Poggio Bracciolini was “after old manuscripts, many of them moldy, worm-eaten, and all but indecipherable even to the best-trained readers.”)

Read it because, as a book-hunter yourself, you’ll love Poggio and all you’ll learn about the history of ancient books, libraries, and bookstores. (Note for next Trivia Night: A bookworm is shaped like a carrot. It has two horns and not one, but three tails…)

But most of all read The Swerve for how Poggio’s discovery of Lucretius’ poem influenced modern thinking. One example: “The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction.”

And this was in the first century B.C…

Mr. Greenblatt, a scholar in his own right, traces the ways in which Lucretius’ poem awakened the Renaissance. He explores how it shaped the thinking of Galileo and influenced Montaigne, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Freud, Darwin, and Einstein. And he does so in an always engaging and accessible way.

Did I mention that I think you should read it?

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