Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Title: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Author: Stephen Greenblatt
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG

I knew nothing about this book other than what you can see on the cover when I put it in my Audible cart a few weeks ago. Well, that's not true-- I also knew that it rang vague bells-- I must have heard about it somewhere. But based on the Greco-Roman sculpture and the Renaissance painting on the cover, and the subtitle "How the World Became Modern," I was expecting the book to be a series of vignettes, possibly starting in the Hellenic period or the Roman Empire, that showed pivotal moments in history that led to our modern era. A logical assumption, right?

Well, no. I was disappointed to discover that The Swerve was really the story of Poggio Braccolini, a scribe to several popes in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, who worked on the side as a book finder. What that means is that he traveled to monasteries across Europe to try to rediscover manuscripts from the Greek and Roman periods-- texts that had been lost to the dark ages. One of the things he found was a poem by Lucretius (99-55 BCE) called "On the Nature of Things." This rediscovery sparked humanism and atomism and a whole bunch of other -isms that have helped shape the modern world. But the cute little vignettes and stories I was expecting? Nope. This is a book that takes place firmly at the turn of the Renaissance. If it had been titled differently and I had gone into it with different expectations, I think I would have enjoyed it more-- as it was, I just kept waiting for the real story to start.

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