The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a fantastic 2/3rds of a book and a flat 1/3rd of a book. If you quit at the 2/3rds mark, I’m fine with that because the last third falls flat.
Swerve is about the re-discovery of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” an Epicurian poem extolling an early Roman atheist worldview of a universe made of atoms descended directly from the Greek Epicurians. For the first third, Swerve dives into the literature movement of the Roman Empire, the nature and industry of hand-written books on scrolls, libraries, and a world of literacy in a time of hegemony. And then Rome fell apart bit by bit and the books were lost to mold, moisture, Christians with torches, and monks who didn’t care to make copies. The early Christian Saints clutched their chests and fell on their fainting couches about how Roman Literature in its beautiful literate manicured Latin, so much better than the crude Greek or Hebrew of the Levant, destroyed their souls and should never be read — wink wink — really don’t read it except you should. To no one’s surprise, people took the Saints seriously and it went from oh no we’re not reading that to NO WE REALLY AREN’T READING THAT and thus, books get lost and destroyed and neglected and used for kindling. Some of the books were copied and recopied in rotation in forgotten mountainous monasteries. On the Nature of Things was one of those.
The second third of the book is about the academics of early Renaissance Florence who fought precisely like academics do. Nothing is better than threats and slander and lies and assassination attempts over translations of Latin. Some of the books crept out, some of the books stayed in collections, but fundamentally these crazy academics established fonts and notation and procedure and pedantic lexicography and everything the modern world needs to analyze literature. These are good people, the crazy ones who go to the Alps to steal books from monasteries. It’s like an Umberto Eco novel except it all really happened.
So thus the book about the atoms and the atheism is returned to circulation.
This is all well and good. But the last third of the book stretches to make Lucretius’s poem important in the course of history. The arguments are tenuous at best. Galileo! Thomas Jefferson! Newton! I think there was a Kant reference stuffed in there. The argument isn’t very good because it was an whole body of literature, not just one poem, entering the literary market once again (histories, plays, philosophy, huge books of maps) that helped kick things along. Sure a book talking about atoms had some impact but wow, it felt overblown. This is unlike Fourth Corner of the World where the return of Ptolemy’s Geography had noticeable and traceable effect — before Geography, no maps; after Geography, maps — it’s unclear what the return of Lucretius’s poem actually had.
Again! Absolutely fantastic first two thirds of a book. Worth reading. Perfect in its awesomeness. Last third — merely good and sometimes bordering on okay. Recommend for the first two thirds, which is more than I can say for 90% of the history books I’ve ever read.
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