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'The Swerve': Ideas That Rooted The Renaissance
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'The Swerve': Ideas That Rooted The Renaissance

Book Reviews

TERRY GROSS, host: Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt extended his reach far beyond academic readers with "Will in the World," his best-selling 2004 book about Shakespeare's life. "Will in the World" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Greenblatt has just published a new book called "The Swerve." After reading it, our book critic Maureen Corrigan was inspired to say: move over Will Shakespeare, a craze for the Roman poet Lucretius is about to begin. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The latest distress signal being sounded on the chat sites I share with my bookish friends is that IKEA is about to introduce an updated version of its classic BILLY bookcase - some 10 of which totter to overflowing in my own basement. Anticipating the death of the book, IKEA has redesigned the good old BILLY with deeper shelves and glass doors, thus transforming it from a bookcase into a tchotchke cabinet.

What a relief then it's been to escape from this most recent alarmist speculation into - what else? - a book that itself attests to the power of books, or in this case, a single book to change the world. Stephen Greenblatt's new nonfiction wonder called "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 - without Kindles, Nooks or iPads to take their place.

At the center of "The Swerve" is the forgotten story of a 15th-century Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, who set out on several expeditions throughout monasteries on the continent and England, hoping to discover some lost classical texts. Poggio served as scribe and secretary in the papal court, a place he cynically thought of as the lie factory. But his passion was for books, especially for the ancient authors, copies of whose books, if they survived at all, had been squirreled away in monasteries.

One of the startling pieces of information Greenblatt shares with the lay reader is just how few classical works managed to crawl into the Middle Ages. Greenblatt tells us that: Apart from some charred papyrus fragments recovered from a villa near Pompeii, there are no surviving contemporary manuscripts from the ancient Greek and Roman world. Everything that has reached us is a copy, most often very far removed in time, place and culture from the original.

One of the ancients whose works seemed to have completely disappeared in what Greenblatt calls the great vanishing was the Roman poet Lucretius, whose name was mentioned in some other classical works that did survive. On a fateful January day in 1417, the intrepid Poggio found himself in the library of a German monastery and reached up for a manuscript. It turned out to be the only surviving copy of Lucretius's poem "On the Nature of Things" - a rich, dangerous, mind-blowing poem written around 50 B.C.E., whose ideas, Greenblatt says, would jumpstart the Renaissance and lay the groundwork for modernity. Pretty huge claims, but Greenblatt is both scholar and storyteller enough to support them.

Among other radical notions, Lucretius, who was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus, claimed that all matter is composed of atoms; that matter is constantly in motion; that human beings return to this cosmic atomic dance when we die and that there is no religiously sanctioned afterlife; and, finally, joy in existence - not suffering, or atoning or endurance - is the point of life. Greenblatt says that some of the world shakers who would be directly influenced by Lucretius's ideas are Galileo, Einstein and our very own American apostle of the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Jefferson.

Surely, sales of Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" will spike as a result of Greenblatt's book: his awestruck discussions of the poem make it sound so weird and beautiful that most readers will want to give Lucretius a whirl themselves. And what a service Greenblatt has performed in bringing to light Poggio Bracciolini, a great explorer who discovered, not lost continents, but lost books.

"The Swerve" is one of those brilliant works of nonfiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind. But throughout this profusion of riches, it seems to me a moral emerges: something about the fragility of cultural inheritance and how it needs to be consciously safeguarded. Greenblatt, of course, doesn't preach, but as a master storyteller, he transports his readers deep into the ancient and late medieval past. He makes us shiver at his recreation of that crucial moment in a German monastery when modern civilization, as we've come to know it, depended on a swerve of Poggio's grasping fingers.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" by Stephen Greenblatt.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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