Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #34: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Greenblatt is most famously known for his books on Shakespeare, or at least, that’s why I know the name even though I haven’t read any of them. This book explores the rediscovery of antique works in Christian Europe around the time of the Renaissance, and the premise reminded me of Petrarch, a name I vaguely remembered from college history classes. This book focuses specifically on Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things and the book hunter Poggio Braccioloni who lived about a generation or two after Petrarch. I definitely enjoyed the book but I also think the back cover and the title in itself may be a bit misleading regarding the book’s topic and argument.
For example, this is straight from the book description section on Amazon: “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.” However, while Greenblatt choose to focus on this particular manuscript, he doesn’t make the argument that it alone changed the world or caused modernity – he makes an argument that it had an influence and a role, but so did several other things. While I don’t want to argue about the importance of Lucretius’s work specifically, to me, the book read less as an argument of how Lucretius changed thoughts, and more of an example of how things were changing in general, and this particular poem was used to show the journey that many others would have been taking at this point in time. On the Nature of Things has some unique viewpoints and perspectives it brought to the table, but the story of its discovery is probably representative of many other works.