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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern [Hardcover]

Stephen Greenblatt
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
List Price: CDN$ 28.50
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Book Description

Sept. 27 2011
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.

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern + Penguin Classics Nature Of Things + Will In The World
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"[This] concise, learned and fluently written book tells a remarkable story" Sunday Times "More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian (starred review)" Kirkus Reviews "[A] superb history... This concise, learned and fluently written book tells a remarkable story... Highly skilled, close-focus readings of moments of great cultural significance are Stephen Greenblatt's speciality" -- Charles Nicholl Observer "In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth (starred review)" Publishers Weekly "[A] superbly readable piece of historical exciting story, and Greenblatt tells it with his customary clarity and verve" -- Robert Douglas-Fairhurst Daily Telegraph --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

About the Author

STEPHEN GREENBLATT is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, editor of The Norton Shakespeare, and prize-winning author of many academic books, including Hamlet in Purgatory.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If the Gods don't care ... Dec 25 2011
The scientists searching for the God Particle -- the phenomenon that turned energy into mass at the time of the Big Bang to create the universe as we know it -- say they're closing in on their quarry.Of course, there's nothing God-like about what they're hunting, but the fact they've chosen to give it this name aptly illustrates our preoccupation throughout human history with deities of one kind or another.

Human beings created Gods (in our likeness?) around the time that we moved from hunter-gatherer status to tillers of the soil -- or maybe earlier. The Sumerians, ancient Greeks and then the Romans codified their Gods but it took the rise of Judaism and Christianity -- and later Islam -- to create the monotheistic, all-fearing, vengeful God handed down to us in the Common Era.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton) explores how some of the early philosophers, notably Epicurus in 3rd century BCE Greece, and Lucretius in 1st century BCE Rome, challenged this belief in gods. Greenblatt has constructed a fascinating narrative around a 15th century ex-Papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, who found the forgotten manuscript of Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, in a monastery in southern Germany. He had it copied (in beautiful calligraphy as readable as modern printing), and soon it was influencing the work of Renaissance thinkers, insidiously undermining the conventional wisdoms of the Church. With the discovery, Greenblatt writes, "the world swerved in a new direction."

Epicurus had taught that the gods, if they exist, did not care at all about human beings. If the gods did not care, why should we?
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Swerve Jan. 20 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An engaging look at philosophy, writing, the art of both and the history of our beliefs. Really thought provoking and insightful. Writing and its power, writing as artwork and our crazy history.

A real pleasure.
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31 of 40 people found the following review helpful
I picked this one up after reading a review from the G&M's Jane Smiley, which I will never do again. The purported premise of Lucretius' work shaping the Renaissance had me hooked. Even the blurb's claim of Lucretius' influence on Einstein, Freud, Darwin, Jefferson had raised high hopes. But of course I was wrong. This book is nothing of what it purports to be. Most of the book is about the life of Poggio Bracciolini, who discovered and had Lucretius' work transcribed and thus 'disseminated' it to the world.

But what of it? A particular instance of history doesn't explain anything to me. There is absolutely no discussion of how On the Nature of Things actually formed the geist, if you will, of the Renaissance. The only connection Greenblatt draws is that it was simply read in the past, and therefore, it shaped the modern world. Are you kidding me? There are bits of useless information such as definitive proof of Montaingne's ownership of the poem, etc, but nothing in this book establishes the connection of psyche of Lucretius to the psyche of the Renaissance and beyond; perhaps one doesn't exist. But more importantly, even these cursory, contrived connections between Lucretius and the modern world, are only summarized in a single chapter. Most of the book is about the idiosyncrasies of Poggio and his times. Bits of entertaining information such as papal scribes hurling insults at one another have absolutely nothing to do with the supposed overarching theme of the book.

The only value of this book is in reading about facts related to Poggio Bracciolini not discussed in wikipedia. If you want to learn about Lucretius' influence in the modern world, look elsewhere (better yet, just read him).
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Romp Through History March 24 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
This is one of the best books I read last year. Using character development and historic detail beautifully rendered, Greenblatt shows how tenuous is the thread that keeps ancient poetic wisdoms within our reach, and how power always seeks to shut down those who do not embrace and obey it.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Stephen Greenblatt Jan. 31 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an interesting book, but I think that I did not find it totally convincing. It tells of some interesting characters. It has been quite a while since I read it. But generally speaking I found it a bit disappointing.
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