How the World Became Modern
Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Non-Fiction
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.
- September 2011
- 6.6 × 9.6 in
/ 368 pages
- Sales Territory: Worldwide including Canada, Singapore and Malaysia, but excluding the British Commonwealth.
Endorsements & Reviews
“The ideas in The Swerve are tucked, cannily, inside a quest narrative. The book relates the story of Poggio Bracciolini, the former apostolic secretary to several popes, who became perhaps the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His most significant find, located in a German monastery, was a copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which had been lost to history for more than a thousand years. Its survival and re-emergence into the world, Mr. Greenblatt suggests, was a kind of secular miracle.
Approaching Lucretius through Bracciolini was an ingenious idea. It allows Mr. Greenblatt to take some worthwhile detours: through the history of book collecting, and paper making, and libraries, and penmanship, and monks and their almost sexual mania for making copies of things.
The details that Mr. Greenblatt supplies throughout The Swerve are tangy and exact. He describes how one of the earliest versions of a fluid for repairing mistakes on a manuscript — Whiteout 101 — was a mixture of milk, cheese and lime. He observes the hilarious complaints that overworked monks, their hands cramped from writing, sometimes added to the margins of the texts they were copying:
'The parchment is hairy'; 'Thin ink, bad parchment, difficult text'; 'Thank God, it will soon be dark'; 'Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake give me a drink.'
On the Nature of Things was filled with, to Christian eyes, scandalous ideas. It argues eloquently, Mr. Greenblatt writes, that 'there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.' Religious fear, Lucretius thought, long before there was a Christopher Hitchens, warps human life.
There is abundant evidence here of what is Mr. Greenblatt’s great and rare gift as a writer: an ability, to borrow a phrase from The Swerve, to feel fully 'the concentrated force of the buried past.'” — New York Times
“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
“More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian.” — starred review, Kirkus Reviews
“In The Swerve, the literary historian Stephen Greenblatt investigates why [Lucretius' ] book nearly dies, how it was saved and what its rescue means to us.” — Sarah Bakewell, New York Times Book Reivew
“In this outstandingly constructed assessment of the birth of philosophical modernity, renowned Shakespeare scholar Greenblatt deftly transports reader to the dawn of the Renaissance...Readers from across the humanities will find this enthralling account irresistible.” — starred review, Library Journal
“Every tale of the preservation of intellectual history should be as rich and satisfying as Stephen Greenblatt's history of the reclamation and acclamation of Lucretius's De rerum natura from obscurity.” — John McFarland, Shelf Awareness
“The Swerve is one of those brilliant works of non-fiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind.” — NPR
“It's fascinating to watch Greenblatt trace the dissemination of these ideas through 15th-century Europe and beyond, thanks in good part to Bracciolini's recovery of Lucretius' poem.” — Salon.com
“But Swerve is an intense, emotional telling of a true story, one with much at stake for all of us. And the further you read, the more astonishing it becomes. It's a chapter in how we became what we are, how we arrived at the worldview of the present. No one can tell the whole story, but Greenblatt seizes on a crucial pivot, a moment of recovery, of transmission, as amazing as anything in fiction.” — Philadelphia Inquirer
“[The Swerve] is thrilling, suspenseful tale that left this reader inspired and full of questions about the ongoing project known as human civilization.” — Boston Globe
“Can a poem change the world? Harvard professor and bestselling Shakespeare biographer Greenblatt ably shows in this mesmerizing intellectual history that it can. A richly entertaining read about a radical ancient Roman text that shook Renaissance Europe and inspired shockingly modern ideas (like the atom) that still reverberate today.” — Newsweek
“A fascinating, intelligent look at what may well be the most historically resonant book-hunt of all time.” — Booklist
“Pleasure may or may not be the true end of life, but for book lovers, few experiences can match the intellectual-aesthetic enjoyment delivered by a well-wrought book. In the world of serious nonfiction, Stephen Greenblatt is a pleasure maker without peer.” — Newsday
“The Swerve is one of those brilliant works of non-fiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind.” — Maureen Corrigan, WHYY-FM/Fresh Air
Also by Stephen Greenblatt
Ninth Edition / Paperback
Second Edition / Hardcover
Volume(s): One-Volume Clothbound
Reissued to accompany Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: the epic poem that changed the course of human thought forever.More