four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
user_rating: 
0

A-The SwerveHarvard professor and literary historian Stephen Greenblatt is a pioneer of New Historicism, which studies the relationship between works of literature and the eras in which they are written. He is the author of numerous books, most famously his best-selling biography of William Shakespeare, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2004).

The Topic: In 1417, obsessive book collector Poggio Bracciolini discovered the last remaining copy of a 7,400-line poem from the first century BC--On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura)--moldering in a German monastery. In this seminal work, the Roman poet Lucretius, a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, contemplates science, philosophy, and psychology; refutes the supernatural; and declares the pursuit of beauty and pleasure the highest virtue in our material universe. Copied and recopied, the poem soon became an underground sensation, offering an alternative to medieval church dogma and sending a shockwave through European culture that revolutionized Western thought and intellectual discourse. Greenblatt traces the profound effect and ongoing legacy of this world-changing work that was nearly lost to history.
Norton. 356 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780393064476

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What Epicurus, and Lucretius, argued for wasn't freedom from God, Greenblatt explains, but freedom from fear. They opposed the notion of a lightning-bolt-wielding judge hovering over our heads, demanding supplication and worship. ... This might alarm die-hard believers, but, as Greenblatt points out, it also encouraged artists and thinkers to shake off fears of eternal torment and approach the natural world with a renewed sense of wonder." Nick Owchar

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"You won't be bored by The Swerve; neither will you be on the edge of your seat. There is abundant evidence here of what is Mr. Greenblatt's great and rare gift as a writer: an ability, to borrow a phrase from The Swerve, to feel fully ‘the concentrated force of the buried past.'" Dwight Garner

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The voyage of De Rerum Natura through time traced an hourglass shape: it billowed, then dwindled, then billowed again. At the waist of this hourglass stands Poggio, and his life forms one of the main narrative strands in The Swerve." Sarah Bakewell

Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"... as engrossing as any novel I've read in the past five years. Even in its own structure and style, this work celebrates 'On the Nature of Things,' a book-length poem composed in 58 B.C. by Lucretius, a Roman about whom virtually nothing reliable is known." John Repp

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is an egghead jumble of scholarship, mystery, a dash of papal corruption, and a picaresque profile of an unlikely 15th-century hero with the winning name of Poggio Bracciolini. ... He is at his best when detailing Poggio's remarkable journey in a mix of fact and conjecture, and he does us a good turn when deconstructing the poem in a conversational, bullet-pointed section." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Among the triumphs of Mr. Greenblatt's account is his portrait of Poggio's patron, John XXIII (c.1370-1419), an offspring of a Neapolitan family of pirates who went on to practice ‘higher forms of piracy' as a prelate. At once thuggish and refined--a quintessential Renaissance combination--this pontiff comes alive in all his low cunning and overweening grandiosity." Eric Ormsby

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"The prose was clear but lacking energy, the covered material largely consisted of borrowed finery, and the whole felt uncomfortably like an attempt to create a nonfiction pot-boiler in the shallow mold of How the Irish Saved Civilization. By no means a bad book, The Swerve simply sets its intellectual bar too low, complacently relying on commonplaces in its historical sections and never engaging in an imaginative or idiosyncratic way with Lucretius's great poem as a work of art." Michael Dirda

Critical Summary

The Swerve cleverly tucks an academic analysis of ancient and modern philosophy into a lively adventure tale. Greenblatt channels his vast scholarship into the narrative, interwoven with mystery and engaging accounts of times past, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Readers will find themselves entranced and hurtling along ancient Roman paths and medieval roadways as Greenblatt guides them from antiquity through history to the present day. Although the Seattle Times lamented the book's length, and the Washington Post complained of too much off-topic padding, other critics relished the digressions into topics such as the eye-opening goings-on in a monastic scriptorium. An inviting and enjoyable book, The Swerve might just contribute to that life of pleasure that Lucretius advocates.