THE SWERVE: HOW THE WORLD BECAME MODERN

I loved this book, particularly since I read it shortly after reading The Inevitable and Sapiens (see below). Together they form a powerful trilogy for considering the rise of modern humanity and Western civilization.

Stephen Greenblatt has plenty of street cred as a historian, and this book did, in fact, win the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. What matters to the reader, though, is he knows how to tell a story—and that’s essential. His thesis is that the rediscovery of a lost manuscript attributed to the Stoic philosopher Lucretius lit the spark of the Renaissance and lifted the West from the Dark Ages. Like most historical narrative, it is a contested thesis. Too simple, critics say. Perhaps. But it’s a delightful thread by which to lead the reader along a discursive exploration of paganism, Christianity, Catholic intrigues at the highest levels and more. It has whiffs of a real-world Dan Brown adventure.

That’s why I chose to mention it here. This blog is about “books well made.” Greenblatt succeeds because he tells a tale so well, using that story as a Trojan horse to educate the reader about his point of view concerning the significance of this one historical artifact. His is an interesting exercise. I am reminded of Mark Kurlansky’s argument in Cod that this single species of fish changed the world. It was, he said, a strategic naval resource, a foodstuff that, when dried, allowed ships of the line to travel farther than before, thus projecting imperial power around the globe.

It’s a tidy and seductive argument, this idea that the shape of the modern world depends from a single object, the first domino in a line that leads from a fifteenth-century Portuguese dory to the British Empire. In The Swerve Greenblatt follows a similar libretto. Like a theatergoer, I am willing to suspend my disbelief and be swept along in the tale he tells.