Monday, December 05, 2011

The Swerve

I'm reading one of those books that changes your life. It's called The Swerve, and it's the story of the re-discovery of Lucretius' On the Nature of Things (a book that changed all our lives). The Swerve is about a secretary to the Pope, who, when he finds himself suddenly unemployed when his corrupt boss is sent to jail, goes on the hunt for lost works of ancient philosophers, and in 1417 finds a copy of On the Nature of Things in a remote German monestary. Within a few years hand-made copies (the only kind there were at the time) are circulating in Europe, inspiring the thoughtful and riling the church.

On the Nature of Things describes Epicurean philosophy, which posits that the universe is made of atoms (yep--first century BCE) that join at random to create matter; that there is no overarching intelligence and no afterlife, so don't fear death, but enjoy what you have while you can. (Lest you find Epicureanism a rationale for selfishness, know that Epicures believed it wasn't possible to enjoy an immoderate life without relationships and charity).

Christianity, especially early Christians' desire to emulate the suffering of Christ, overwhelmed hedonistic Epicureanism--what could be more opposite?--and Lucretius' book disappeared for a thousand years, until it was discovered in that German monastery. (Ironic that monasteries were the first places scholars looked for subversive works. Monks took librarianship seriously.) When On the Nature of Things reappeared in the 1400s, riling the church meant risking being burned at the stake. Even so, people read it, talked about it, and the renaissance followed.

There's a little of the history of book making and of libraries in The Swerve, there's a little of the history of philosophy and art, and as enjoyable as I find that amalgam under any circumstances, it is made even better by the book's beautifully legible font, and when a book is easy to read, the ideas in it are more likely to endure, and The Swerve's author, Stephen Greenblatt, will explain that to you, too.

Authors' names:


Jane Cain said...

I think the 1st one is Michael Crichton.

Not certain about the 2nd one, possibly E.M. Forrester.


tim snead said...

#1 is right, #2 is not.

hint: gems, dirt hump

Yvonne Whelan said...

#2 Jules Verne ?

Yvonne Whelan said...

#@ Jules Verne (?) - rhymes with berm

tim snead said...

YES!! Yea!