RA Crossroads: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, a lost ancient text leads me down a winding path.

BS080411RACgreenblatt(Original Import) BS080411RACking(Original Import) BS080411RACeco(Original Import) BS080411RACwinchester(Original Import) BS080411RAClucretius(Original Import)


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. W.W. Norton. Sept. 2011. 368p. ISBN 9780393064476. $26.95.
Engaging and enthralling, filled with a large cast of interesting characters, details of book history, and a strong, story-rich frame, this is a tale of books and their power, religion and its fears, and men and their quests. Harvard literature professor Greenblatt (general editor, The Norton Anthology of English Literature; Will in the World) begins with the story of a book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century apostolic secretary who, until Baldassarre Cossa, Pope John XXIII, was imprisoned, served the highest religious leader in the world. Out of work, Poggio found himself with time on his hands, a driving obsession to find ancient texts, and just enough means to go exploring. In 1417, he found what was perhaps the only surviving copy of Lucretius’s masterpiece of Epicurean philosophy, the first-century BCE poem De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), in a musty, ignored corner of a German monastery. The discovery of this poem, as Greenblatt traces it, was a spark that helped ignite the Renaissance and eventually led to the very conception of modern thought. De rerum natura posited, among other things, grounds for evolution, the atom, and an understanding of the world not governed by religion. This extraordinary poem, whose survival is miraculous, eventually planted seeds that would bloom in the work of Thomas More, Galileo, Machiavelli, Botticelli, da Vinci, Thomas Hobbes, Michel de Montaigne, Erasmus Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Jefferson.


King, Ross. The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism. Walker & Co. 2006. 464p. ISBN 9780802714664. $28.
King’s cultural history titles are also fast paced, scholarly, and highly narrative. They often examine how individual works of genius instigate cultural shifts and are filled with compelling characters and intriguing supporting detail. Here, King considers the transforming power of art as practiced by √âdouard Manet, the rise of the Impressionists, and the decline of the more formal academic works of French painting, particularly those of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Like Greenblatt, King places his history in a detailed frame and takes time to explore tangents that enrich his main story, such as Parisian life, the Prussian siege, and the work of Degas, Monet, and Cézanne. For more book-based cultural history, suggest Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds.

Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Walker & Co. 2005. 192p. ISBN 9780802714626. $22.
One of the most intriguing facets of De rerum natura is how it prompted the greatest minds of the Renaissance, and beyond, to engage in creative thought to cope with, or expand upon, its tenets. Indeed, a great deal of the pleasure of Greenblatt’s book is his underlying point about how creative energy shapes the world in a disjointed collision of interlinked events. Sobel’s account of how a seemingly insurmountable scientific problem‚ how to determine longitude while at sea‚ was solved makes nice next reading for Greenblatt fans because it takes up the same intriguing questions: How do things come about, and what pushes men to quest and find? Additionally, Sobel’s book is enjoyable, quickly paced, highly narrative, and has a similar smart, accessible style.

Winchester, Simon. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. HarperCollins. 2005. 288p. ISBN 9780060839789. pap. $13.99.
Winchester writes enthralling and lively accounts full of fascinating characters and illuminating detail. Like Greenblatt, he has an addictive sense of wonder, which makes his books rewarding to read. As he often does, here Winchester traces the stories of two seemingly ordinary people who engage in extraordinary undertakings. James Murray, the editor of the O.E.D., sought input from contributors to create the massive 12-volume dictionary. Dr. William Chester Minor contributed thousands of entries‚ all while incarcerated in an asylum for murder. Winchester ably details the biographies of both men and their growing friendship, as well as their shared compulsion to create the dictionary.


Lucretius. On the Nature of Things. Trans. by Frank O. Copley. W.W. Norton. 2011. 208p. ISBN 9780393341362. pap. $15.95.
In a poem of astounding power, half the length of Homer’s Iliad, Lucretius (c.99 BCE‚ c.55 BCE) wrote that all matter is made of invisible seeds and that there is no difference between the elementary particles that make humans and the particles that make the universe. There is only matter and void. There is no afterlife; the soul dies with the body. Given that there is only this life, the philosophy maintains, the only path is to live for pleasure and avoid pain. Far from hedonistic, Epicureanism defined pleasure in very specific ways: to live modestly, to pursue knowledge, to reach a state of tranquility, and to resist fear. Even if they do not wish to read the entire poem, fans of Greenblatt should dip into Lucretius’s work, if only for context. Translations abound. John Dryden created lovely versions of some sections, and Greenblatt uses those in his book. Norton is re-issuing this translation by Copley to accompany The Swerve, but translations by Rolfe Humphries, A.E. Stallings, Ronald E. Latham, and Anthony Esolen are also notable. Audio listeners might be interested in Hugh Ross’s reading of the poem, released by Naxos.

Petroski, Henry. The Book on the Bookshelf. Vintage. 2000. 304p. ISBN 9780375706394. pap. $16.95.
Part of the huge pleasure of reading Greenblatt is his forays into book history‚ he explains how papyrus and vellum were manufactured for writing, how scribes copied texts (and under what conditions), how, in the time before the printing press, manuscripts were always imperiled, and how works were lost to time, decay, and the literal fires that seemed to consume the world as it turned from paganism to Christianity. Petroski explores similar ground, tracing the development of the scroll and the codex and focusing particularly on the storage of texts, from rolls to bookshelves. Along the way he examines famous libraries and their architecture. It makes for delightful reading‚ fascinating, fun, and detailed. Also suggest Alberto Manguel’s wonderful The Library at Night.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Mariner Books. 1994. 536p. ISBN 9780156001311. pap. $15.95.
Readers of Greenblatt are likely to want more detail on, and immersion in, the world of libraries, scriptoriums, and the power of manuscripts. To fulfill this desire, suggest Eco’s literary mystery set in a world similar to the one Greenblatt evokes, albeit in 1300s Italy. In a Benedictine abbey, the only known surviving copy of Aristotle’s second book of Poetics seems to be at the center of a string of deaths. Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan friar, is asked to investigate. While William explores the labyrinthine library of the abbey, around him swirls the cultural climate of his age: the fear of and desire to control a manuscript, the Inquisition, and the powerful clashes between religion and politics. Erudite and ornate, satisfyingly complex and detailed, Eco’s novel offers a multi-level experience of the play, and power, of language.


Helvetica. 80 min. Gary Hustwit, dist. by Plexifilm. 2007. $24.95.
Part of Poggio’s success was his fine copyist hand and his creation of a new handwriting‚ a style that would become our italics. Greenblatt briefly discusses the importance of this new style, but for more on how a typeface can be a powerful tool of cultural transmission (as well as political power), watch this documentary on the development and use of the typeface Helvetica. While the creation of this modern typeface is the focus of the film, attention is also paid to how different typefaces are developed and how graphic artists use them to convey meaning. Quirky, illuminating, and compelling, this ode to the most modern of typefaces shines a light on a fairly closed community of artists and the rift between the schools of thought that influence their work.


This article originally appeared in the newsletter BookSmack! Click here to subscribe.

SELF-eLearn More
SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!
Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net