ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Don’t veer from The Swerve

Penticton reader and writer Heather Allen reviews The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

My mother-in-law likes to give unusual gifts: sea creatures, kaleidoscopes, mouth harps and finger pianos.

She’s a librarian, so her eclectic choices often include books. For our wedding anniversary this year, she gave us a book with the lofty title The Swerve: How the World Become Modern.

Not exactly a light, romantic, pop culture choice such as say … Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact the author of Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt, sounded familiar from my university days. It turns out he’s a stalwart Shakespeare scholar, Pulitzer Prize winner, and the editor of academic tomes such as the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Many of his books are on my shelves — albeit collecting dust. I carried The Swerve around in my book bag for a couple months before bracing myself for what I thought was going to be a dry and heavy read. I was entirely mistaken. This tour from ancient to modern times is centred around an engaging and entertaining story.

In the winter of 1417, a book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini ventures to a remote monastery in search of forgotten ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts.  After convincing the monks to let him peruse their dusty shelves, Poggio makes what is perhaps his greatest find — Lucretius’ ancient poem On the Nature of Things.

The book had been lost to history for more than a thousand years.  In it, Lucretius spoke of ideas that were both astonishing and dangerous in the 1400s. He said everything was made of atoms, and that after death, there was no heaven.

Poggio, who became one of the greatest book hunters of the age, knew this was an extraordinary book, and had it hastily copied. Greenblatt argues that discovery of ancient texts like this one helped hasten the start of the renaissance. Many great thinkers since that time have been profoundly influenced by the reading of On the Nature of Things – from Montaigne to Thomas Jefferson and Einstein.

Greenblatt is a serious academic, but he is also an agile writer. The Swerve isn’t meant for just those who live in ivory towers. In fact, it’s written for the masses. For this book, he chooses a much different style, but the same intellect shines through. The book has it all — intrigue, mystery, danger, humour and above all, much food for thought.

Thanks to my mother-in-law for throwing another swerve into my life.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.