Book Review: "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" by Stephen Greenblatt

Friday, May 31, 2013

“The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.”
I would be delusional if I called Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How The World Became Modern anything but a book with poor scholarship merit and a premise that swerves away from reality and any kind of sense. I wasn't expecting that from an eminent Renaissance scholar and professor at Harvard, but there it is. How did this win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award? I'll never understand. Maybe I'm missing something.
He starts the book by following a book collector as he searches for classical books figuratively buried by the sands of time. This book collector finds the last surviving manuscript of On The Nature of Things by Lucretius. Greenblatt argues that this manuscript was the direct influence on Renaissance thought, and heavily inspired important documents in American History. "The atoms of Lucretius had left their traces on the Declaration of Independence"? Really? Really, really? The best - or worst - part is that Greenblatt rarely follows up his overblown statements with anything resembling factual evidence.

It sounds like Greenblatt loved On The Nature of Things, and there is plenty to love in a poetic epic that was the precursor of modern atheistic thought. It certainly is a work of art. But "the swerve" in history that made the world shift onto a more "modern" path? I think not.

Oh, and by the way...what is modernity? Greenblatt only espouses the inevitable march to progress that most anthropologists now bash as heavily Eurocentric. Nowhere does this book mention how global forces, such as Islamic and East Asian thought led to "modernity."

I give this book a boo hiss.