Reviews for Swerve : How the World Became Modern

Book News Reviews
This engaging history of the birth of modernity and the Renaissance explores the rediscovery and popularization of Lucretious' poem On The Nature of Things, by the book collector Poggio Bracciolini in the fifteenth century, and the impact of the ideas of humanism and science it contained on future generations form Galileo to Einstein. The work is engaging and appropriate for general readers with an interest in the history of science and the Renaissance. Greenblatt is a professor of the humanities at Harvard University. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Booklist Reviews 2011 September #1
Literary scholar Greenblatt focuses on Lucretius, ancient Roman author of the brilliant and beautiful didactic poem On the Nature of Things, which challenged the authority of religion, and papal counselor and book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, whose recovery of a copy of the subversive text a millennium and a half later added momentum to the Renaissance and shaped the world we call modern. Lucretius, Greenblatt reminds, was a radical figure very much ahead of his time. Many of his insights--for example, that everything is made of invisible particles of matter that are constantly in motion--have been borne out by modern science. Others, such as the idea that religions are defined by cruelty and superstition, remain hotly controversial to this day. Vatican humanist Bracciolini, about whom we know quite a bit more, if not quite enough, may in the end be the more interesting personality. He knew what he had found, but did he know what it meant? Do we? A fascinating, intelligent look at what may well be the most historically resonant book-hunt of all time. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2011 October
The dawn of the Renaissance

Browsing through a sale bin in search of summer reading, Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World) happened upon a paperback with an extremely odd and erotic cover. Intrigued, he bought a copy of Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) for 10 cents. Through the random discovery of this poem, Greenblatt recognized a worldview that mirrored his own, for the ancient poet wrote that humans should accept that we and all the things we encounter are transitory, and we should embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.

In The Swerve, Greenblatt elegantly chronicles the history of discovery that brought Lucretius’ poem out of the musty shadows of obscurity into an early modern world ripe for his ideas. At the center of this marvelous tale stands an avid book hunter, skilled manuscript copyist and notary: Poggio Bracciolini. While Poggio’s adventures in book hunting had not turned up much of value for several years, one day in 1417 changed his life and the world forever. He pulled down a dusty copy of On the Nature of Things from its hidden place on a monastery shelf, knew what he had found and ordered his assistant to copy it. The manuscript of Lucretius’ poem had languished in the monastery for over 500 years; the monks ignored it because of its lack of religious value. In Poggio’s act of discovery, he became a midwife to modernit[Sat Aug 30 04:27:25 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. y.

With his characteristic breathtaking prose, Greenblatt leads us on an amazing journey through a time when the world swerved in a new direction. The culture that best epitomized Lucretius’ embrace of beauty and pleasure was the Renaissance. Greenblatt illustrates the ways that this Lucretian philosophy—which extends to death and life, dissolution as well as creation—characterizes ideas as varied as Montaigne’s restless reflections on matter in motion, Cervantes’ chronicle of his mad knight and Caravaggio’s loving attention to the dirty soles of Christ’s feet. This captivating and utterly delightful narrative introduces us to the diverse nature of the Renaissance—from the history of bookmaking to the conflict between religion and science—and compels us to run out and read Lucretius’ poem.

Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 September
New paperback releases for reading groups

Leah Hager Cohen’s poignant fourth novel, The Grief of Others, follows a married couple as they try to move forward in the wake of tragedy. When their infant son dies, John and Ricky Ryrie struggle to regain their footing. Shifting into denial mode, they return to the business of daily living, which includes caring for their other two children, Biscuit, 10, and Paul, 13. As life resumes, John and Ricky find that the tragedy causes the cracks in their already fragile relationship to deepen. Picking up on the stress at home, Biscuit starts skipping school, while Paul is bullied by classmates. John and Ricky seem oblivious to these difficulties until a special visitor wakes them up to reality—and to fresh possibilities for the future. Cohen’s perceptive portrayal of a frayed family offers a multifaceted look at the grieving process. This sensitively executed novel will resonate with readers long after the final page is turned.

Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern recounts the history and influence of one of philosophy’s most important works: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. Rediscovered about 600 years ago, the poem proposes that the universe operates without the guidance of an omnipotent being and all matter is composed of tiny particles. Copied and dispersed throughout Europe, it added to the feverish atmosphere of inquiry that characterized the Renaissance. Over the centuries, Lucretius’ poem impacted some of the world’s most esteemed minds, including Shakespeare, Darwin and Einstein. The work also affected Greenblatt when he discovered it in the 1960s, shaking up his ideas about death and the afterlife, as he recounts in the book’s delightful personal sections. A respected scholar, Greenblatt is also a stylish, accessible writer. His latest book is a testament to the power of ideas—a compelling narrative that shines new light on our intellectual roots.

Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides returns with The Marriage Plot, a tale of romance and academia set in the early 1980s. The novel’s heroine, Madeleine Hanna, is an English major at Brown University and a romantic at heart. During her senior year, she becomes emotionally entangled with two very different guys: Mitchell Grammaticus, a reliable religious-studies major, and volatile Leonard Bankhead, an unpredictable but gifted student. Neither one is Madeleine’s ideal match, but she eventually marries Leonard, while Mitchell embarks on a soul-searching journey to Calcutta. Madeleine’s happily-ever-after is disrupted when Mitchell suddenly reappears in her life, his affection for her still alive. Eugenides’ novel charms even as it poses important questions about identity, maturity and the nature of relationships.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Choice Reviews 2012 March<[Sat Aug 30 04:27:25 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. br />Adopting the conceit of the "swerve" as the fulcrum of this work, Greenblatt (Harvard) presents a narrative study of Poggio Bracciolini's discovery in 1417 of Lucretius's lost poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things). He provides an engaging synthesis of Christianity's tactical obliteration of Epicureanism and the concomitant consignment to oblivion of the poetic elucidation (i.e., works like Lucretius's) of atomic and hedonistic fundamentals the Christian world-view deemed so antithetical. Artfully woven in are erudite delineations of the arcana of medieval book production, the mores of life in a monastic scriptorium, the intrigues of 15th-century papal politics, and the considerable perils of theological heterodoxy. By fortuitous chance, a manuscript of the lost De rerum natura was discovered in one dramatic moment of instantaneous recognition by Poggio, one of the greatest of the humanist bibliomaniacs. Adducing this as the "swerve," Greenblatt causally connects this recovery of Lucretius to the unleashing of the forces of scientific inquiry and aesthetic humanism that characterize the Renaissance and thus inform the substratum of modernity--hence the subtitle. Provocative, stimulating, and certain to catalyze scholarly debate, this elegant book deserves a wide readership. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. General Readers; Lower-division Undergraduates; Upper-division Undergraduates; Graduate Students; Researchers/Faculty. J. S. Louzonis St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2012 American Library Association.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 July #1

Greenblatt (Humanities/Harvard Univ.; Shakespeare's Freedom, 2010, etc.) makes another intellectually fetching foray into the Renaissance—with digressions into antiquity and the recent past—in search of a root of modernity.

More than 2,000 years ago, Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius wrote On the Nature of Things, which spoke of such things as the atomic structure of all that exists, of natural selection, the denial of an afterlife, the inherent sexuality of the universe, the cruelty of religion and the highest goal of human life being the enhancement of pleasure. It was a dangerous book and wildly at odds with the powers that be through many a time period. That Greenblatt came across this book while in graduate school is a wonder, for it had been scourged, scorned or simply fallen from fashion from the start, making fugitive reappearances when the time was ripe, but more likely to fall prey to censorship and the bookworm, literally eaten to dust. In the 15th century, along came Poggio Bracciolini— humanist, lover of antiquity, former papal secretary, roving hunter of books—and the hub of Greenblatt's tale. He found the book, perhaps the last copy, in a monastery library, liked what he saw (even if he never cottoned to its philosophy) and had the book copied; thankfully, history was preserved. Greenblatt's brilliantly ushers readers into this world, which is at once recognizable and wholly foreign. He has an evocative hand with description and a liquid way of introducing supporting players who soon become principals: Democritus, Epicurius, scribe monks, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Montaigne and Darwin, to name just a few.

More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian.



Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2011 April #2

Harvard humanities professor Greenblatt shows how the discovery of the last existing manuscript of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things--a radical book proclaiming that the world manages without gods and is made of small particles in constant motion--led to the Renaissance. The swerve? Lucretius allowed for the existence of free will in his atom-bound universe by theorizing that those little particles swerve randomly. I bet this will be as absorbing and informative as Greenblatt's Shakespeare study, Will in the World. With an eight-city tour.

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Library Journal Reviews 2011 June #2

In this outstandingly constructed assessment of the birth of philosophical modernity, renowned Shakespeare scholar Greenblatt (Cogan University Professor of English & American Literature & Language, Harvard; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) deftly transports readers to the dawn of the Renaissance, when in 1417 bibliophile Poggio Bracciolini uncovered the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus's Epicurean work, On the Nature of Things, in the dusty confines of a German monastery. After lying dormant for centuries, Lucretius's "atomist" philosophy reemerged, promoting the joys of this world over the punishments and rewards of the next, gradually conquering humanist circles and influencing such luminaries as More, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Newton. At the heart of Lucretius's Latin verse lies the core argument that by understanding the world around us, abandoning superstitious delusions, and coming to grips with humanity's insignificance, we begin to take ownership of our lives and set out on the pursuit of happiness. VERDICT Greenblatt's masterful account transcends Poggio's significant discovery to encompass a diversity of topics including the Roman book trade, Renaissance Florence, and the Catholic Church's attempts to deal with heresy and schism. Students and general readers from across the humanities will find this enthralling account irresistible. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/11.]--Brian Odom Pelham P.L., AL

[Page 98]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal BookSmack
Engaging and enthralling, filled with a large cast of interesting characters, details of book history, and a strong, story-rich frame, this is a tale of books and their power, religion and its fears, and men and their quests. Harvard literature professor Greenblatt (general editor, The Norton Anthology of English Literature; Will in the World) begins with the story of a book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century apostolic secretary who, until Baldassarre Cossa, Pope John XXIII, was imprisoned, served the highest religious leader in the world. Out of work, Poggio found himself with time on his hands, a driving obsession to find ancient texts, and just enough means to go exploring. In 1417, he found what was perhaps the only surviving copy of Lucretius's masterpiece of Epicurean philosophy, the first-century BCE poem De rerum natura ("On the Nature of Things"), in a musty, ignored corner of a German monastery. The discovery of this poem, as Greenblatt traces it, was a spark that helped ignite the Renaissance and eventually led to the very conception of modern thought. De rerum natura posited, among other things, grounds for evolution, the atom, and an understanding of the world not governed by religion. This extraordinary poem, whose survival is miraculous, eventually planted seeds that would bloom in the work of Thomas More, Galileo, Machiavelli, Botticelli, da Vinci, Thomas Hobbes, Michel de Montaigne, Erasmus Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Jefferson. - "RA Crossroads", Booksmack! 8/4/11 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal Reviews Newsletter
Greenblatt's quest to discover how Lucretius's masterpiece of Epicurean philosophy, the first-century B.C.E. poem "On the Nature of Things," was found and introduced into 15th-century thought makes an excellent next read for those who enjoyed Lester. Greenblatt's investigation is ultimately one of restoration and influence, while Lester's is focused on the education of da Vinci. Both, however, trace the importance of books in the Renaissance and their effects-in particular how creative energy echoes through the ages. Greenblatt's history is enthralling and like Lester's is full of details and intertwining tales. Most thrilling of all, one of Greenblatt's main subjects, the 15th-century book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, makes a very short but profound appearance in Lester's text; Poggio found not just Lucretius's text but also Vitruvius's The Ten Books. Readers particularly interested in the echoes of lost texts should also be pointed to Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole's Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, which won the 2012 Sophie Brody Medal. - "RA Crossroads " LJ Reviews 3/1/2012 (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 June #3

In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt (Will in the World) turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth. It hinges on the recovery of an ancient philosophical Latin text that had been neglected for a thousand years. In the winter of 1417 Italian oddball humanist, smutty humorist, and apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini stumbled on Lucretius' De rerum natura. In an obscure monastery in southern Germany lay the recovery of a philosophy free of superstition and dogma. Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things" harked back to the mostly lost works of Greek philosophers known as atomists. Lucretius himself was essentially an Epicurean who saw the restrained seeking of pleasure as the highest good. Poggio's chance finding lay what Greenblatt, following Lucretius himself, terms a historic swerve of massive proportions, propagated by such seminal and often heretical truth tellers as Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, and Montaigne. We even learn the history of the bookworm--a real entity and one of the enemies of ancient written-cultural transmission. Nearly 70 pages of notes and bibliography do nothing to spoil the fun of Greenblatt's marvelous tale. 16 pages of color illus. (Sept. 19)

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