Book Review: The Swerve

I opened this book knowing it to be nonfiction. Twenty pages in, however, I was a little puzzled. How is Stephen Greenblatt describing events that happened in the 1400s–and far earlier–with such detail? “Now at last for Poggio the quarry became exciting,” he writes, “and the hunter’s heart in his breast beat faster.”

This is a bit of artistic liberty, I hazard, but I’m not questioning Greenblatt’s facts. (And I’m a professional fact-checker.) He notes in the appendix that this Poggio, the 15th century scribe who unearthed a text that would change the world, wrote a total of 558 surviving letters. Greenblatt has taken those writings, combined with extensive research, and given us a fascinating account of the supposed world-altering work.

I was skeptical of the claim that such a poem exists. But, indeed it seems too. Written by Lucretius in the year 50 B.C., On the Nature of Things expounds on particle physics and evolution, laying out ancient philosopher Epicurus’ shockingly accurate theories about the world and how it functions. The poem barely survived the Christian-led book burnings of the Roman Empire’s early years. Thanks to forgotten dusty corners of the middle ages, however, it did

This is what shocks me most: Greenblatt’s telling of how Christianity stalled human advancement. Catholicism, particularly, replaced empiricism with dogma and punished anyone who didn’t take the church’s word for law and truth.  What if the scholars hadn’t been silenced?  What advances have we lost in 1909 years since Lucretius and his contemporaries thought and wrote freely without the oppression of religious doctrine?

I digress. The Swerve is powerfully insightful. I do wish Greenblatt had jumped around less in relating all of the events. He starts with Poggio, goes to Lucretius, to Epicurus, to Lucretius, to Poggio again. For those of us less familiar with the history of the Ancient world, it took a lot of brain power to follow.

But why am I against brain power? By all means, if this book teaches anything, it’s that we can’t quell thinking.  And, probably, the jumping around is necessary to retain readers’ attention. Thinking back to middle school tedium, I guess most eyes would glaze over while reading about ancient Roman and Greek philosophers. Not with Greenblatt’s dynamic (if not a little erratic) re-telling.

Creationists would hate The Swerve. To them, I recommend it even more.


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