The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

79%

33 Critic Reviews

...understanding things as they are generates a deep and abiding wonder. Though I must say the story of Poggio rediscovering Lucretius — the demolition man of divine providence — so hinged on contingency and luck and improbability, is enough to strain the skepticism of even the most devout materialist.
-National Post arts

Synopsis

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction 

Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction


One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.



Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.



The copying and translation of this ancient book-the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age-fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.
 

About Stephen Greenblatt

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Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, he is the author of eleven books, including The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (winner of the 2011 National Book Award and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize); Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World; Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. He has edited seven collections of criticism, including Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. His honors include the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize, for both Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England and The Swerve, the Sapegno Prize, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Wilbur Cross Medal from the Yale University Graduate School, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
 
Published September 26, 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company. 377 pages
Genres: History. Non-fiction
Bestseller Status:
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Peak Rank on Oct 16 2011
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Critic reviews for The Swerve
All: 33 | Positive: 25 | Negative: 8

Kirkus

Excellent
Reviewed by Kirkus Reviews on Jul 01 2011

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

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NY Times

Excellent
Reviewed by SARAH BAKEWELL on Sep 28 2011

In “The Swerve,” the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt investigates why his book nearly died, how it was saved and what its rescue means to us.

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NY Times

Excellent
Reviewed by Dwight Garner on Sep 27 2011

This book is well-brewed coffee with plenty of milk and sugar stirred in; it’s a latte, not an espresso.

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Guardian

Excellent
Reviewed by Colin Burrow on Dec 23 2011

The story is told with all Greenblatt's style and panache. He brings the silent labours of a medieval scriptorium to life by describing the elaborate sign-language that scribes used to indicate which manuscript they needed to consult...

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Guardian

Excellent
Reviewed by Charles Nicholl on Sep 23 2011

This concise, learned and fluently written book tells a remarkable story. It may not quite tell us "how the Renaissance began", as the subtitle rather rashly promises, but the episode it describes is certainly resonant.

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NPR

Excellent
Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan on Sep 20 2011

The Swerve, is part adventure tale, part enthralling history of ideas. As Greenblatt's story reminds us, there have been other, much grimmer times in history when books as objects very nearly disappeared...

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Financial Times

Excellent
Reviewed by Daniel Swift on Sep 09 2011

Bracciolini is an image of the scholar as hero...and it is hard not to hear Greenblatt’s own longing behind this affectionate portrait of a bibliophile and the poem he found.

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Globe and Mail

Excellent
Reviewed by JANE SMILEY on Oct 07 2011

Still, the lesson of The Swerve is hopeful – that anything can happen, including but not limited to a 37-year-old man losing his job... and coming up with the only remaining copy of the one poem that changes history.

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LA Times

Excellent
Reviewed by Nick Owchar, on Nov 20 2011

..."The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," an equally wondrous book about how this classic was nearly lost and why Western civilization would be much poorer if that had happened.

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The Washington Post

Below average
Reviewed by Michael Dirda on Sep 21 2011

...but ultimately I found the book strangely unserious. The prose was clear but lacking energy, the covered material largely consisted of borrowed finery, and the whole felt uncomfortably...

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The Independent

Below average
Reviewed by IAN THOMSON on Sep 30 2011

For all his marvellous verve and scholarship, Greenblatt makes exaggerated claims for Lucretius.

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The Telegraph

Excellent
Reviewed by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on Sep 15 2011

This superbly readable piece of historical detective work begins with an accidental encounter in a university bookshop, as the young author stumbles upon a bargain prose translation of Lucretius’s 2,000-year-old De rerum natura...

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Washington Independent Review of Books

Below average
Reviewed by Gideon Rappaport

Everyone is entitled to his opinion about the essential mysteries, but Greenblatt’s embrace of Lucretius’ vision is exasperating in three particular ways: It is self-contradictory, prejudiced and condescending.

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San Francisco Chronicle

Excellent
Reviewed by Glenn Altschuler on Dec 18 2011

In "The Swerve," Stephen Greenblatt...provides a delightfully engaging, informative and provocative account of Bracciolini's discovery and its implications for the emergence of "modern" culture and philosophy.

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Slate

Below average
Reviewed by Adam Kirsch on Sep 29 2011

A more important problem with The Swerve is that Greenblatt’s account of Epicureanism makes it sound rather more consoling than it really is.

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The Daily Beast

Excellent
Reviewed by Jimmy So on Oct 07 2011

What The Swerve does so well is to resurrect so joyously a time when people truly loved books, and remind us what it is like to sway and swerve to the beauty of the written word...

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Boston.com

Excellent
Reviewed by Buzzy Jackson on Sep 25 2011

Greenblatt has written an intellectually invigorating, nonfiction version of a Dan Brown-like mystery-in-the-archives thriller, right down to the suppression of a great work of radical art by the early Christian church.

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Salon

Excellent
Reviewed by Laura Miller on Sep 11 2011

It’s fascinating to watch Greenblatt trace the dissemination of these ideas through 15th-century Europe and beyond, thanks in good part to Bracciolini’s recovery of Lucretius’ poem.

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The New York Review of Books

Excellent
Reviewed by Anthony Grafton on Dec 08 2011

Like Lucretius, Greenblatt has written a seductive, beautiful book that will inspire wonder, reflection, and the pursuit of pleasure.

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New Zealand Listener

Below average
Reviewed by DAVID LARSEN on Jan 07 2012

This is a simplification of a story Greenblatt tells in some detail. But it isn’t an oversimplification, because he doesn’t tell it in all that much detail. Or very well.

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Full Stop

Excellent
Reviewed by Simon Nyi on Jan 30 2012

Both Greenblatt and his readers know history isn’t that simple, and he knows we know. But we wouldn’t be reading if we didn’t like a good story, and to have Stephen Greenblatt tell us that story makes it all the better.

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History News Network

Excellent
Reviewed by Jim Cullen on Jan 01 2012

...is simply marvelous -- emphasis here on simply -- in illustrating cultural disruption and transmission as a deeply historical process even as ideas partially transcend the circumstances of their articulation.

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Booked Solid

Excellent
Reviewed by victor.kralisz on Jun 23 2012

Greenblatt’s book is a satisfying and complicated, though not difficult, read and serves us well in teaching us the humility we need to keep on thinking in the 21st Century.

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BigThink.com

Excellent
Reviewed by Adam Lee on Oct 22 2012

...The Swerve is an excellent account of how the modern world emerged from this cauldron, and a book that's well worth every freethinker's time.

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Reviews in History

Excellent
Reviewed by John Monfasani on Jul 05 2012

This is an eccentric book. With grace and learning it tells the story of the discovery in Germany in 1417 of the masterpiece of Epicureanism – Lucretius’ poem De Rerum Natura...

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BBC History Magazine

Below average
Reviewed by Robert Black

Greenblatt’s book is fluently written, and it provides readers with a clear introduction to the philosophy of Lucretius, but, as history, it is deeply flawed.

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The Algemeiner

Excellent
Reviewed by Beth Kissileff on Feb 27 2012

Greenblatt recounts the journey of Poggio from an important bureaucrat in the papal service to an independent humanist book hunter, and tells a fascinating social history along the way.

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HARVARD MAGAZINE

Excellent
Reviewed by Christian Flow on Aug 01 2011

There is in Greenblatt’s work a keen appreciation that the course of history is at any moment perched on a razor’s edge...

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Catholic News Agency

Below average
Reviewed by Father Robert Barron on Oct 21 2011

The story of modernity’s rise is much more complex and finally much more interesting than the one told by Stephen Greenblatt...

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National Post arts

Good
Reviewed by Michael Lista on Jan 27 2012

...understanding things as they are generates a deep and abiding wonder. Though I must say the story of Poggio rediscovering Lucretius — the demolition man of divine providence — so hinged on contingency and luck and improbability, is enough to strain the skepticism of even the most devout materialist.

Read Full Review of The Swerve | See more reviews from National Post arts

ANABELLE BF

Good
Reviewed by Anabelle. on Oct 16 2012

If you have an interest in literary history, bibliography, archival research, Greek and Roman antiquities, the Renaissance and 15th century papal history, I strongly suggest this book.

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New at LacusCurtius & Livius

Below average
Reviewed by Jona Lendering on May 27 2012

But The Swerve is unconvincing. The idea that there was a “grand design” to keep an ancient poem away from sight, with the Vatican as the arch-villain...

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Blogtrotter

Good
Reviewed by Fionnchú on Apr 20 2012

Greenblatt's lively study takes the reader into pagan philosophical and literary culture in the centuries before Christ.

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