Originally published Thursday, October 6, 2011 at 12:17 PM

Book review

'The Swerve': An ancient poem lights a modern fire

In "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt makes the case that the 15th-century rediscovery of an ancient work by the Roman poet Lucretius ushered in a new way of viewing the world.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Stephen Greenblatt

The author of "The Swerve" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are free with the purchase of "The Swerve" from University Book Store or at the door; otherwise tickets are $5.
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It's a difficult time for bookworms. We fear the next generation will have to visit interactive museum exhibits to turn pages of an actual, physical book. (Yes, it's true our worries tend to recede while we're waiting for the Kindle to download, but we do worry.)

"The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" (W.W. Norton, 263 pp., $26.95), by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, is especially well-timed for our neo-biblio age. Among its many teachings, this book assures us that dramatic change in manuscript-delivery systems need not erode the power of the words. The book is an egghead jumble of scholarship, mystery, a dash of papal corruption, and a picaresque profile of an unlikely 15th-century hero with the winning name of Poggio Bracciolini. A bit of pruning would have benefited this book, but Greenblatt keeps the reader hooked and curious.

Poggio (as Greenblatt refers to him throughout) was a middle-aged book hunter in 1417, when he took to the road in search of crumbling, forgotten manuscripts in the libraries of ancient monasteries. (Italians had been rescuing such reading material for a century by then.) He had come of age in Florence and worked as secretary to a succession of popes, deepening his knowledge of classical Latin, and becoming a wily political survivor. His calligraphic skill and creativity led Poggio to revolutionize the form and readability of script used for copying manuscripts.

His biggest find, in a monastic library in Germany, was a copy of a six-volume poem, "On the Nature of Things" ("De rerum natura.") This 7,400-line poem was written by Titus Lucretius Carus nearly 50 years before the birth of Christ. Greenblatt posits that the poem's radical, heretical, sensual, original ideas helped enable the Renaissance, changing the course of history.

Lucretius had a rich source of inspiration: the teachings of Greek philosopher Epicurus, who two centuries earlier put forward the shocking idea that pursuit of pleasure could and should be a higher calling. Lucretius deepened and refined this view, packaging his revolutionary ideas in a most palatable form: a poem. To many of Poggio's contemporaries, Greenblatt writes, it "seemed incomprehensible, unbelievable, or impious."

Lucretius promulgated a worldview sharply at odds with that of religious and political leaders; indeed, a view that would never sit right with the Christian church. Everything, he declared, is made of invisible, eternal particles. Though there may be gods, there is no creator or designer of the universe. All religions are cruel, there is no afterlife, and the enhancement of pleasure and reduction of pain compose the highest goal of human life. I can't help but wish Lucretius was around today to infuriate FOX News pundits.

As it was, Lucretius' book inspired poets and philosophers of his era, was banned, lost, discovered and recopied by monks every century or so and then lost again until the last surviving copy was rescued by Poggio. Lucretius' radical secularism was revived as an underground hit, making its way from reader to reader, and into the light of day, eventually to the likes of Niccolò Machiavelli, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Charles Darwin, even Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein. To those great thinkers, it was an intellectual thunderbolt that ignited creativity and set one free from myth.

Greenblatt, author of several books, including the entertaining and bold biography, "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," has an enthusiasm for his subject that is infectious. He is at his best when detailing Poggio's remarkable journey in a mix of fact and conjecture, and he does us a good turn when deconstructing the poem in a conversational, bullet-pointed section.

This romantic tale of a book lover who saved a nearly extinct work of genius, which in turn might have caused a dramatic swerve into our modern world is, in Greenblatt's hands, deservedly and ably rescued.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland, Ore.. She blogs at

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