LJ Best Books 2017

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Librarians’ Best Books of 2011: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve

We could think of no better way to count down to the Nov. 17 unveiling of our Top Ten Books of 2011 than by inviting ten librarians to guest blog on their favorites of the year (continue the conversation on Twitter with the hash tag #ljbestbooks).

While I won’t say if there’s overlap between our choices and theirs, I will say that the depth and breadth of American publishing blew my mind in our deliberations to the extent that best lists almost seem pointless. There is truly something for every personality, every micro-mood, and every attention span‚ and in multiple forums and formats. (See last year’s bests for evidence.)

Bottom line: Best more than ever is a relative concept, but given the exploding number of choices available, we could all use some guidance on what to pull next from the content mines, and librarians remain an authority. Let’s turn, then, to our inaugural contributor, Lauren Gilbert, head of community services at the Sachem Public Library, NY, an LJ reviewer and passionate reader of nonfiction, which‚ let’s be honest‚ often gets the shaft in best-of lists.

Lauren loves The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W.W. Norton; see their amazing Tumblr) by Stephen Greenblatt

What We Said:

Greenblatt’s masterful account transcends Poggio’s significant discovery to encompass a diversity of topics including the Roman book trade, Renaissance Florence, and the Catholic Church’s attempts to deal with heresy and schism.

What She Says:

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World, an LJ Best Book of 2004) tells the riveting tale of Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century Italian humanist who rediscovered one of the last surviving copies of an ancient Roman philosophical treatise, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, that altered the course of human thought and fueled the ideas of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Greenblatt opens with a preface in which he tells the story of his own discovery of Lucretius’s epic poem in a used-book shop in his college days. In a sense, Greenblatt is a modern-day Poggio, as this unexpected find ultimately led him on a similar quest to bring the ancient (and once again, largely forgotten) text to life for today’s reader.

The Swerve is a fascinating, well-written intellectual history that manages to tie together ancient, medieval, and Renaissance worlds and beyond by following a single, tenuous thread over nearly two millennia. How are knowledge, culture, and ideas transmitted through the ages? Why do some ideas endure while others are lost forever?

The book is an intellectual feast for bibliophiles and history buffs, with sections devoted to several distinct yet interlocking themes. Greenblatt describes life in the first century B.C.E., among the world of Lucretius and his circle of Epicureans and their philosophical, contemplative life. He also explains Lucretius’s poem, which contains several ideas that sound shockingly modern to our ears.

We learn about the slow death of the classical world, the long decline and ultimate destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and the preservation of knowledge in the medieval monastery. Monks were required to read and write, yet curiosity was discouraged. Despite the numerous heretical ideas contained in Lucretius’s text, we have an anonymous Dark Ages scribe to thank for the copy later discovered by Poggio in a monastic library.

The tale continues in Poggio’s early Renaissance Florence, amid the rebirth of humanism, when scholars first started to place a distance between themselves and the ancient world in a way that allowed for critical re-examination. Manuscript hunters like Poggio, living among the ruins of Roman glory, sought out authentic copies of classical texts. These 15th-century Christians occasionally got themselves into trouble with the religious authorities as they attempted to balance their adoration of pagan authors with the prevailing Christian culture. Poggio himself was a trusted secretary in the papal court, which he referred to as the Lie Factory. His scathing exposés of life among the backstabbers in the deeply corrupt Roman Curia are highly entertaining.

Perhaps Poggio’s find didn’t in any way directly cause the Renaissance (after all, the text had never entirely disappeared, remaining in monastic collections throughout the Middle Ages), but it was reclaimed by a society ready to assimilate its ideas. Greenblatt shares the afterlife of this assimilation, showing how Lucretius’s poem seeped into modern consciousness, influencing the writings of, among others, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson.

The Swerve reminds us of the inexorable forces conspiring against the endurance of the printed word‚ fires, bookworms, heavy use, neglect, censorship, and destruction, to name just a few. After reading Greenblatt’s history, I find it astonishing that any ancient texts have survived at all. That human knowledge has endured, and libraries continue to collect and preserve the written word in all forms, is in large part thanks to humanists, scholars, and bibliophiles like Poggio Bracciolini and Stephen Greenblatt.

Lauren’s Favorite Passage:

“Of course, all Poggio could hope to find were pieces of parchment, and not even very ancient ones. But for him these were not manuscripts but human voices. What emerged from the obscurity of the library was not a link in a long chain of texts, one copied from the other, but rather the thing itself, wearing borrowed garments, or even the author himself, wrapped in gravecloths and stumbling into the light.”

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (hmccormack@mediasourceinc.com, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.


  1. Kaite Stover says:

    This book is going on the book group shortlist for discussion for 2012!

  2. Karl Helicher says:

    Very revealing and fascinating capsule, Lauren. I am especially intrigued by Poggio’s musings about the “lie factory” and his tenacity to challenge those in authority to preserve the best of the past.

  3. Robin Nesbitt says:

    I’m not a huge nonfiction reader but Swerve had caught my eye. After reading Lauren’s great comments, I’ll be adding it to the growing pile of books to read!