Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern


Rating: 3.5 Stars


Omaha Public Libraries offers this really great service that allows you to submit the genres of books you are interested in, and in turn a librarian will email you a list of potential books you might enjoy. That is how I found this title and I must say that I was not disappointed. It was not my favorite that was recommended, but I found many parts of the story very interesting - though perhaps not the parts the author intended to be the focus.

Prior to reading this one, I had not heard of Lucretius or his so-called blasphemous poem On the Nature of Things. What can I say, I am just not terribly interested in reading all the ancient poets. Perhaps someday, but for now they do not hold my interest.

In 1417 a man named Poggio Bracciolini discovered this poem in a dusty collection of old manuscripts in a monastery that was all but in accessible. Bracciolini himself was far more interesting to me than his actual discovery. Here was a man who has held one of the highest offices working for Pope John XXIII, who was completely greedy and a bad guy, and when that position is lost when Pope John XXIII loses his position, he sets off in search of the ancient manuscripts. Apparently this was a big thing - these guys set of for these random, remote monasteries to see what they could find, if there were hidden gems being hidden away by the monks who themselves may not be fully aware of the ancient texts in their possession. Bracciolini is one of many men who embarked on journeys like these, and I found that far more interesting than the poem itself or what Greenblatt purports it to have done.

In short, On the Nature of Things was full of ideas that the church considered dangerous and heretical, false claims made by pagans. Lucretius' poem contends that there are no gods who tend to our universe, that they don't care what we are doing and our offerings/prayers do not entice them to intervene, virtue and pleasure go together, and that everything in the universe is made up of these small particles that collide and swerve in new directions. As one can see, this would be a big time blow to the Catholic Church at the time when they were already combating what they considered heresy from those who took issue with the practices within the Church.

Something else I appreciated from the book was the descriptions of how fragile these ancient manuscripts were - common sense yes, but I did not know the book worms were actual wormy things that ate books. Makes total sense to me now why we call people who devour books quickly 'bookworms'. Eleanor and I definitely fit that description! The work necessary to even put these books together to begin with is nothing short of a miracle. Thank goodness for the invention of the printing press. Gutenberg, you are The Man.

Greenblatt contends that this is 'when the world became modern', but my issue is simply that he does not tie the two together nearly as succinctly as he might have. He weaves the story well but the end is still kind of loose and it not nearly as satisfying as I expected. The vagueness of how it made the world modern, Lucretius and his atheism, just not wrapped up in a way that leaves the reader with a concrete base in which to put it all together.

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