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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt, W.W. Norton & Company

By John J. Kelly · December 21st, 2011 · Lit
It takes an intellectual scholar with the knowledge, depth and curiosity of Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt to take a tale ancient and unknown and turn it into a compelling saga. Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for non-fiction, tells the fascinating story of how an obscure and nearly lost-forever poem by an ancient scribe named Lucretius forever changed the way we think about the world and our place in it. Greenblatt reveals how the last remaining copy of this dusty, old manuscript, titled “On The Nature Of Things,” was rescued by a man named Poggio (and you thought only Rock stars used one name) in the 15th Century and brought about a literal and literary “swerve” in thinking.

After the dust had settled, this short poem became the inspiration for generations of artists and scientists like Botticelli, da Vinci and Galileo. 

Greenblatt’s passion for this primitive poem comes across on every single page of the book. He tells us that, as a young man, he stumbled across the poem by Lucretius in a used bookstore for the bargain price of 10 cents. As Greenblatt recounts, Lucretius was the first to counter that humans should “conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all things they encounter are transitory and embrace the beauty and pleasure of the world.” These ideas, the author notes, may seem common today, but were heretical both at the time they were written and a thousand years later when the poem was rescued.

Greenblatt tells his story in the manner of a detective’s tale, which keeps things fascinating through the final page. The pleasure is reading the details of the discovery and how the work of just a few individuals can change the world. Grade: A+



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