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Thoughts from Linda:

The Swerve (How the World Became Modern)

by Stephen Greenblatt



This Pulitzer Prize winning book is so relevant today, in our current age and especially in the COVID-19 pandemic, as we experience many individuals who seem to ‘deny science’ even in the face of much evidence to the contrary. This is not a new phenomenon in the history of our planet and ‘homo sapiens’ (man the wise) as this book certainly illustrates.


The Swerve is a true story that reads like a novel, about the history of thought and the meaning of life throughout the ages, by focusing on a specific and classic poem that is 2000 years old, written by a Roman named Lucretius, known in history as Titus Lucretius Carus. 


He was a poet who lived about 100 BCE, and philosopher. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a work about the tenets and philosophy of Epicureanism, and which usually is translated into English as On the Nature of Things. As Greenblatt explains, this poem survived miraculously and did indeed help to create a ‘swerve’ in human history. It served as a most important bridge into modernity as you will see.


This book tells a most interesting story of how ideas (and books!) survive, in spite of many vagaries of life, including specific efforts to destroy them through the centuries, as paradigms and conventional thinking, along with strong religious ideas contribute to the branding of certain ideas as ‘dangerous.’


The story begins with a discovery that happened 600 years ago in a remote village and, as other reviewers have noted, reads like a modern-day mystery novel.


As a big reader myself, I especially enjoyed the story of how monks and others kept books alive during the Middle Ages and many of the details revealed about early libraries, including such things as scriptoria, workshops where monks would be trained to sit for long hours making copies. 


In a world today where we simply order from Amazon or Audible, it is so interesting to think about just how precious and fragile books were in those days. His story includes interesting details of how scrolls and the codex developed. Just learning about how paper was created after the move away from papyrus is well worth the read! A good scribe it turns out would work about 6 hours a day (while they had daylight as candles were too dangerous (for fire) in the scriptorium and most didn’t understand what they were writing. As he noted, nothing was to be altered as they worked and ‘curiosity was to be avoided at all costs.’ The implications of this to a monk were devastating, just like to early workers of all types as you were valued for repetitive tasks and specifically not your brain.


The message of this poem revolves around its explanation of atoms as the building blocks of all things. The Swerve takes you through a journey of that message and its many implications as it traveled and was interpreted by individuals such as Thomas More, Savonarola, Machiavelli and numerous Popes where it was seen as scandalous and a subversive assault on Christian doctrine. Copernicus and Galileo are featured in this journey for their connection to and inspiration from Lucretius and this work.


The book traces this poem, which was almost lost forever, from its random discovery in the 1400s throughout the next several centuries, concluding with its survival and impact in the New World via our third President and humanist American, Thomas Jefferson. It turns out that he had at least five Latin editions of On the Nature of Things and it was noted as one of his favorite books. He also had translations of the poem into English, Italian and French. The impact is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence written by Jefferson, as he notes that our government is here to serve the lives and liberties of its citizens, and also to serve the ‘pursuit of happiness’…a most Lucretian idea. 


Stephen Greenblatt is an American Shakespearean, literary historian, and author. He has served as the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University since 2000. Greenblatt is the general editor of The Norton Shakespeare (2015) and the general editor and a contributor to The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Greenblatt is one of the founders of new historicism, a set of critical practices that he often refers to as "cultural poetics". His works have been influential since the early 1980s when he introduced the term. Greenblatt has written and edited numerous books and articles relevant to New Historicism, the study of culture, Renaissance studies and Shakespeare studies and is considered to be an expert in these fields. He is also co-founder of the literary-cultural journal Representations, which often publishes articles by new historicists.

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