Saturday, February 9, 2013

Completed: The Swerve, How the World Became Modern


This was a very enjoyable read, but after I finish writing this review, I'm going to hit the internet, because I can just guess that it's one of those historical books that some people vehemently disagree with.

The Swerve is a short work of history (the text runs only about 250 pages, followed by over a hundred pages of endnotes) by Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer for non-fiction. It tells the story of how an Italian book hunter Poggio Bracciolini rediscovers an ancient Roman manuscript in 1417. This work was called On the Nature of Things, by the poet Lucretius. Greenblatt's thesis is pretty straightforward: the revolutionary ideas contained in Lucretius's poem would spread through Europe like a contagion, eventually sparking some of the greatest minds in history towards the Renaissance.

Anyone who loves books would find this to be a fascinating read. Much of the first half of the book describes the state of reading throughout history: the change from scroll to book, the destruction of the great library at Alexandria, the discovery of ancient scrolls in Herculaneum, the process by which monks copied and preserved (or sometimes destroyed) ancient manuscripts. Honestly, there's more interesting stuff in here then I could possibly even describe. I loved the author's writing style. He is able to create such a dramatic interesting story, seamlessly weaving together stories of ancient Rome and fifteenth century Italy.

This book actually reminded me of a class I took my senior year of college. (You may remember me talking about this class, because the professor was a guy named Father Flynn--a visiting professor from Emory!) That class was a philosophy class, but Father Flynn was probably the best lecturer I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. The breadth and depth of his knowledge was incredible, and he wove all sorts of interesting stories into his lectures. It was so fun to just sit there and soak up ideas about knowledge and ideas about how the world worked.

This book struck that same chord in me. Just watching Greenblatt put together the story, adding fascinating tidbits and pieces of knowledge was so fun. Poggio, our bookhunter, was the right hand man to Badlassare Cossa, also known as Pope John XXIII. This is during the Western Schism, which I **vaguely** remember learning about in high school religion classes. In high school, this all seemed extremely boring, which is too bad, because this book makes it sound pretty interesting. Cossa and his retinue arrive in Constance, Germany, along with hundreds of thousands of other churchmen, royalty, and his rivals for the papacy. Here is Greenblatt's description of Cossa's arrival at Constance: With his power rapidly melting away he took care to insist on his prestige. If he could hardly claim any moral high ground, he could at least establish his ceremonial significance...Clad in white vestments and a white miter, on October 28, 1414, Baldassare Cossa made his entry into Constance on a white horse. Four burghers of the town carried a golden canopy over his head. Two counts, one Roman and the other German, walked by his side, holding his bridle. Behind them rode a man on a great horse from whose saddle rose a long staff bearing a huge umbrella..made of red and gold cloth. The umbrella, broad enough to spread over three horses, was topped by a golden knob on which stood a golden angel holding a cross. Behind the umbrella came nine cardinals on horseback, all in long, red mantles, with red hoods, and all wearing red hats...And at the front of the procession stretched a line of nine white horses, covered with red saddlecloths. Eight of these were laden with garments---the pope's wardrobe was evidence of his hold upon his sacred identity---and the ninth, a little bell jingling on its head, bore on its back a casket of silvergilt covered with red cloth to which were attached two silver candlesticks with burning candles. Within the casket, at once jewel box and tomb, was the Holy Sacrament, the blood and body of Christ. John XXIII had arrived (165).

If only they had made history so interesting in high school! (Not like you haven't heard that before.) I loved the vivid description of Casso's pageantry. Imagine how impressive that would have been if you were just a poor peasant living in the Alps. The Swerve is filled with fascinating stories like this, and because so much of this book was related to books, education, and ideas, it was so much fun to read.

So, that's all the good stuff. But there's something weird about this book, too. Greenblatt tells a fascinating story in the first two thirds of the book about Poggio and how books were preserved and rediscovered. Only in Chapter Eight, at page 182, does Greenblatt start to describe Lucretius' poem. The rest of the book does a pretty good job of describing the ideas in the poem and they were seen as heretical, and threatening to the Church and good Christians everywhere. It's fascinating, mostly because he correctly anticipates so much scientific discovery. A big part of his poem is about the nature of matter, and that all things are composed of tiny, invisible particles called atoms. You might be wondering why such a simple idea was threatening to the Church. Well, as it turns out, it directly contradicts the doctrine of transubstantiation. You can't exactly claim that the communion wafer *is* the body of Christ at the same time that you accept that everything in the Universe is also made of tiny particles. In fact, in the 1980s, the Vatican uncovered evidence that part of the reason Galileo was treated so harshly at the Inquisition was because of his belief in atoms, not just his contention that the Earth went around the Sun.

Believing in atoms was not Lucretius' most outlandish idea. Although many said that Lucretius was an atheist, the text of the poem shows his beliefs are even more threatening to the power of the Church. On the Nature of Things states that there are gods, but our petty human concerns mean nothing to them and that the Universe was not created for the benefit of humanity. Lucretius argues that the Soul is part of its human body, and when that body dies, the Soul does as well. There is no reward or punishment after death, because bodies are made of atoms. Once someone dies, their life is over and there is nothing after. Therefore, the highest goal for a human should be to reduce pain and pursue pleasure. The Church is nothing but a superstitious delusion trying to control us and keep us from pursuing pleasure. His poem argues that the Church makes its cruelty evident in its most powerful symbol, that of a parent sacrificing a child.

The book goes on to argue that Lucretius' ideas influence a huge number of important writers, poets, artists, and philosophers---everyone from Shakespeare to Isaac Newton. My guess is that this idea, that the discovery of On the Nature of Things by Poggio in 1417 was the underpinning of the entire Renaissance is just a bit too broad to swallow. It just seems like such a huge claim, and although he produces some interesting ideas, that part of the book just never seems totally convincing. In fact, he isn't even able to fully demonstrate that Poggio even read the text. He actually orders a copy made, gives it to a friend, and then doesn't even see it in person for a decade. It's strange to make such a strong case for "Ohmigod! Finding this book changed the world!" when the guy who found it seemed so disinterested in reading it. It's more than a bit anticlimactic.

Greenblatt also wrote Will in the World, what I'd call a speculative biography of Shakespeare. This is a guy that seems comfortable with a fair amount of guesswork, and my guess is that there are plenty of scholars who will say it's a reach. But for a general reader, I'm not sure if I should care. Even without completely buying the premise, the book still told a richly interesting story. I felt the same way about Will in the World. It's a pleasure to have someone tell a historical story in a way that comes alive, to have an author so confident in his knowledge that he's willing to speculate a little about how things might have unfolded. (Especially when the historical record is so thin. People playing fast and loose with history when there's plenty of data is just annoying. I am going to be disappointed if this guy is playing *really* fast and loose, which I suppose is possible.) I enjoyed it immensely and definitely recommend it.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Completed: 13, rue Thérèse

Dear Jenny,

Well, this was a fun little read. A bit like Griffin and Sabine, but less magic (both in the story line, as well as the "artifacts," which, in G&S can actually be handled but in this book, they're just photos), a little like The Venetian's Wife in that you are delving into the past and it feels like a puzzle.

Plot Summary:
An academic in Paris finds a mysterious box of artifacts in a drawer in his office, hidden there by his assistant for him to find. In it are remnants of a woman's life who had lived in the earlier part of the 20th century at 13, rue Thérèse. He ends up getting sucked into her story and, in some parts, actually getting sucked back in time and interacting with her.

It's an interestingly told story about her life in the past and his life in the present. There isn't a lot of connection between their two lives, but the stories still feel intertwined... perhaps because of the artifacts: Things that she has held in her hand, he holds now. Then he hooks up with the assistant who hid the box, which might have been her intent all along. That story is a little extraneous, but it's fine, because the whole thing is all a little odd. So more oddness works here.

About 1/4 of the way through, I thought, "I have no idea what is going on in this book and I might have to re-read it..." but then things started to gel and come together. It got all weird and mysterious but then had a pretty satisfying conclusion. Sometimes I find these magical time-transcending artifact-laden stories either end on a WTF note (or on a WTF image  see meat lap) or a sort of cliffhanger/mystery trail-off (indicating, to me, that the author actually said "WTF?" to themselves when they got there and just ended it) but this book did wrap up quite nicely, while still leaving a bit of mystery.

A cool idea that didn't quite work out:
Sooo... this book delved into the "multimedia" and it didn't really work for me. The concept: Use your phone's QR reader to view the artifacts in more detail. Unfortunately, a lot of the artifacts also have audio content in embedded Flash which means, if you have a Very Popular Smartphone (hint: begins with an "i"), you cannot hear the audio. Fail. Sooooo... I took the time to go to a computer to find out what I was missing. Turns out that it was audioclips of someone reading the text. Which is... a little odd. I guess the parts in French would be cool  listening to someone actually speak French is a bit of an immersion, right? But... it's not worth stopping reading, going to my computer, and going to the site. It's kind of disruptive.

And the site itself is lovely, but flawed... all of the stuff is out of order, so it's not like it's easy to say, "Oh, yeah — I've read pages 25-50 today, lemme catch up on checking out those artifacts." You can see the site for yourself right here. I honestly cannot imagine why they put that crap all out of order except... they wanted you to have that "treasure hunt" feeling? Or they didn't want someone who has not bought the book to just skim through the stuff and get the book "for free?" So strange. If they're all that hyped about that, they could have made the site password protected and then given people a password in the book. At least you'd have to actually look in the book to get the password. I don't know. I'm just spitballing here. For those of us who *do* own the book and want to check this stuff out, it's just kind of a hassle.

Sometimes the artifact is accompanied by audio and sometimes there is a clip from the text... For instance, this one just has the copy straight from the book. I actually didn't look at them all because, as I mentioned, it was kind of tough to sift through the stuff. I didn't really find any "easter eggs" or anything  just larger pictures of the artifacts, plus clips of the text, either written or voiced. This one had a video attached to it at some point, but now it's no longer available. It seems like a neat idea, poorly executed.

TMAI (Too Much Author Info):
Sometimes, learning more about an author's story makes a book more interesting. Sometimes, a little less. Unfortunately, the latter is the case with this one (but you never know until after you've gotten the author details, right?)

As it turns out, the box of artifacts is real and the author actually lived at 13, rue Thérèse as a child. According to the site, when the woman upstairs died, she left this box and no one ever claimed it. The author has been carrying it around with her ever since, planning to write this book all along (she moved to the US in the 1980s at the age of 13).

So even though the main character, Louise Brunet, did exist and these were her possessions, the entire story about her was manufactured by the author. She knew nothing about this woman and made up everything from these artifacts, which included photos of her life, a glove, sewing notions, a few coins, etc. I think it would have been more interesting if she had managed to research this woman and actually write a real history about her *or* just used the artifacts to tell a work of complete fiction.

As it stands, it sort of rubs me the wrong way  I hope someone doesn't find a box of my crap when I'm dead and make up an entire book of stories about me, using my real name, address, and photos... especially one that involves me cheating on my husband with a neighbor!

The Curse
Aw, man. I really did like this book, but 2/3 of this write up is about stuff I didn't like! I guess it really is true that it's easier to bitch and moan than it is to say positive things. Oh, well. I'm leaving it  it's our blog and I can bitch and moan if I want to. ;)


PS  Just remembered that you asked me how my French was on that last post. Um... rusty? There was quite a bit of French in this book (with translations) and I was able to read some of it, but not much. I'm slightly better conversationally, but still... rusty.