If you at all enjoy history and the play of ideas across centuries, you will enjoy The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which was a National Book Award winner. The author, Stephen Greenblatt focuses on an ancient poem (De Rerum Natura by Lucretius) nearly lost in the "teeth of time" (as he so colorfully puts it). The poem was plucked from its obscurity in a German monastery library by an early fifteenth century Italian book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini.
I have read the criticism that the subtitle, "How the World Became Modern", is a bit of an overstatement. Perhaps, but the author is using this specific example as representative of the people and thoughts that shimmered across the centuries. In my mind, I could visualize a pebble tossed out into time, with concentric circles of influence spreading further and further. It is the way in which the author follows these silvery trails that is engrossing. I thought it was interesting that these humanist scholars were so well-versed in the existing ancient literature that they could follow clues about works that had once been widely read, but had disappeared from known literature.
In the Middle Ages, monasteries were the repositories for literature. Their books were copied by hand and stored. A person searching these libraries, though, had to have some idea of what he was seeing. He also had to have some hunch about the best places to search across Europe. The fact that this particular poem, with its subversive ideas, was found by this particular person is just amazing.
Greenblatt sets the stage by introducing Poggio and telling us his situation, so we see how he came to be nosing around monastic libraries in Germany. He then goes on to tell how this poem, itself influenced by the ideas of Epicurus, left its imprint on the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and beyond, even to our own Thomas Jefferson. The controversial ideas contained in the poem are outlined on pages 185-199.
For anyone who enjoys this book, I would also recommend How to Live – or – A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Montaigne, too, was a link, carrying the Epicurean ideas of Lucretius forward. I love these words from page 247-8:
"There are moments, rare and powerful, in which a writer, long vanished from the face of the earth, seems to stand in your presence and speak to you directly, as if he bore a message meant for you above all others. Montaigne seems to have felt this intimate link with Lucretius..."
Lastly, if you are a bookaholic, as I am, certainly you can empathize with Petrarch, quoted on page 119:
"Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds, and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one's bones. They speak to us, consult with us, and join with us in a living and intense intimacy."
The Swerve invites us to join the conversation, to commune with minds across the ages. Who could resist?
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