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.



  1. Well, of course I am now curious what your internet searching found!

    This book does sound like it makes history interesting, although I can see the sticking point when someone insists so *much* hinges on one discovery. But... looking back through the lens of history, isn't that often the case? Maybe something we didn't see at the time when it happened becomes more significant (a turning point, even) after more time has passed.

    I've never read Will in the World but have had my hand on it many times... maybe I should check it out.

    in other news... the danger of reading book blogs? You find more good books to read. I mean, that's a good thing, but also... I had big plans to get a head start on 1Q84 for March, but now I'm distracted by two other books! :)

  2. Okay. Here's what I found out---I basically read reviews from 2 perspectives. The one at the New York Review of Books was actually pretty friendly to the book. But a guy at the Los Angeles Review of Books just eviscerates the thing, pointing out (mostly) that Greenblatt exaggerates the "darkness" of the Middle Ages and is smug about the questions of faith presented in the book. But for my money, the best line goes to Dwight Gardner at the New York Times who says, "This book is well-brewed coffee with plenty of milk and sugar stirred in; it’s a latte, not an espresso."

    But most of the reviews, except for that one, are pretty glowing. So I feel okay about my take on it.

    Also, in an interesting coincidence, the POPE RESIGNED this week! That hasn't happened in 600 years...and that happened at the Council of Constance I described a bit above. How fortuitous to have just read about it! I love it when that happens.