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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern | [Stephen Greenblatt]

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic by Lucretius—a beautiful poem containing the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles.
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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, General Nonfiction, 2012

National Book Award, Nonfiction, 2012

Renowned historian Stephen Greenblatt’s works shoot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. With The Swerve, Greenblatt transports listeners to the dawn of the Renaissance and chronicles the life of an intrepid book lover who rescued the Roman philosophical text On the Nature of Things from certain oblivion.

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late 30s took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic by Lucretius—a beautiful poem containing the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

The copying and translation of this ancient book—the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age—fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare, and even Thomas Jefferson.

©2011 Stephen Greenblatt (P)2011 Recorded Books, LLC

What the Critics Say

"More wonderfully illuminating Renaissance history from a master scholar and historian." (Kirkus Reviews)

"In this gloriously learned page-turner, both biography and intellectual history, Harvard Shakespearean scholar Greenblatt turns his attention to the front end of the Renaissance as the origin of Western culture's foundation: the free questioning of truth." (Publishers Weekly)

“Pleasure may or may not be the true end of life, but for book lovers, few experiences can match the intellectual-aesthetic enjoyment delivered by a well-wrought book. In the world of serious nonfiction, Stephen Greenblatt is a pleasure maker without peer.” (Newsday)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

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  •  
    Rena Alisa Los Gatos, CA, US 03-19-14
    Rena Alisa Los Gatos, CA, US 03-19-14 Member Since 2010
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    "History can be Fun"

    The basic premise of this book -- that one poem modernized the world-- is a little unrealistic. However, the history is both fascinating and delightfully narrated. I don't even like history but this book is brilliant. It is witty and fun and was a pleasure to listen to.
    I knew nothing about Lucretius, and now I know a great deal. I have never stopped to wonder how old books have been passed down through the ages. Well, now I know.
    I highly recommend this great listen!

    7 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ilinca Romania 12-10-13
    Ilinca Romania 12-10-13 Member Since 2010
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    "well worth reading"

    The story of how, in the early 15th century, former papal secretary Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini found the lost text of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura might not seem like a riveting read. I hesitated before buying it, thinking that I knew how it was going to go: Lucretius's text would be lost for about 1450 years, then Poggio would find it and then the poem would be influential in promoting non-Christian, perhaps even atheist thinking in the very Christian Western world.
    That's pretty much how it does go, too. The only thing is, it's still very interesting. Poggio himself is just an instrument with little actual importance, though Greenblatt makes much of his origins and career. This bit is, to be honest, fluff - but it does give some ingisht into the period. More interesting, though somewhat shoved in through the back door, were the stories of Bruno and Galileo and their face-offs with the Inquisition. Also very interesting is the discussion of ancient philosophy and the Epicurean tradition and Lucretius himself, though there is so very little to say about him that not even Greenblatt manages to summon up a plausible, flesh-and-bone historical figure.
    However, the most interesting bit is the actual applied discussion of the actual text. I haven't read De Rerum Natura, except perhaps a couple of lines in high school or college when discussing world literature or something. Now I'm discovering an amazing poet.
    I'm not buying Greenblatt's thesis wholesale (that the world was "made modern" through the discovery of this one poem), but I was compelled by his obvious pleasure in the text (and I'm still moved by his love for Shakespeare, which I absolutely share, but that's by the way). And so, no regrets: this little book is absolutely worth reading.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Constance Chicago, IL, United States 07-18-14
    Constance Chicago, IL, United States 07-18-14 Member Since 2012
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    "Masters Thesis, padded"
    What made the experience of listening to The Swerve the most enjoyable?

    The premise of this book and the supporting historical detail was well researched and interesting.


    What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

    However, to create a "book-length" book, this premise is restated, repeated and so padded that it quickly became annoying. It would have made a very nice monograph at less than half the length.


    Have you listened to any of Edoardo Ballerini’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    Mr. Ballerini is easy to listen to and did a fine job with his narration.


    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bob257 11-13-13
    Bob257 11-13-13
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    "The Wisdom of the Ancients"
    Any additional comments?

    Very Interesting book, part History, part Philosophy, the philosophy of Epicurus via Lucretius is amazingly insightful, it blows my mind that people so long ago with no scientific instruments and nothing more than their reason could so precisely know the world for what it truly is, from Atomic theory to Evolutionary Biology they seemed to somehow divine these truths using only their reason, ideas that have been confirmed by modern science thousands of years later.


    In contrast i never fully realized just how stunting Christianity and Christian Dogma has been on Western Civilizations Intellectual growth, its inflexibility and downright hostility to any ideas that challenged its orthodoxy, though ironically much of the ideas of the ancients have only survived because the texts were copied and preserved by the Monasteries of Europe,

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joseph United States 06-17-13
    Joseph United States 06-17-13 Member Since 2012
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    "Great story and very good listen"
    Would you listen to The Swerve again? Why?

    I would listen to The Swerve again because it covers so much ground. There are many themes and literary references that get you going out searching for texts of your own. Very inspiring.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of The Swerve?

    Idk


    What about Edoardo Ballerini’s performance did you like?

    The narrator was easy to follow in tone, pitch, volume and most importantly put the proper emphasis one the lines in the story.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

    Just keep it a book


    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    C. Telfair Shepherdstown, WV, United States 06-24-12
    C. Telfair Shepherdstown, WV, United States 06-24-12

    Audible has changed my life! Dry , itchy eyes were destroying one of my greatest pleasures - reading. Now I am experiencing books again!

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Hard to Keep Your Eye on the Road"

    I'm of two minds about this unusual book. On the one hand, it is a fascinating story about a book hunter and the extraordinary work he saves from near extinction. On the other hand, it's a history and commentary on the pre-Renaissance Western world. An interview with Stephen Greenblatt on NPR led me to expect the first subject; I didn't so much anticipate tackling the other.

    Don't get me wrong -- the historical details are most interesting. There's eye-opening detail about the miseries perpetrated in the name of religion; one can feel the political and physical dangers of the times. I'm just saying there was so much digression from the story of Lucretius' book and the search that uncovered it that I had to take a few lengthy breaks from the listen.

    I believe I was confounded partly by the narration. Mr. Ballerini's voice drones on in the manner of a sadly disappointed parent lecturing a misbehaving child. It's not an unpleasant voice, but it never varies from a rather sing-song tone, and it lacks enthusiasm.

    On the whole, this is an extremely intelligent work of obviously rigorous research. There's much here for even the casual fan of history. So, I'd recommend it -- just take it easy, don't beat yourself up if you need a few breaks, and keep returning!

    8 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Anthony Ardmore, PA, United States 02-04-12
    Anthony Ardmore, PA, United States 02-04-12 Member Since 2010

    tonydm

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    "Not quite"

    Lucretius may well be fascinating, but it is not at all clear how his De Rerum Natura was the "swerve" that changed our perceptions. It would seem that the author is somewhat overintent on trying to find a foundation for his own atheism. While I too am not a believer, this text seems something of a an exaggeration. But, beyond that, the incidents are most interesting.

    12 of 17 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Julia 11-21-11
    Julia 11-21-11 Member Since 2008

    I listen to a lot of audiobooks.

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    "But wait..."

    From reading the description of this book I was under the impression that the focus would be on the content of the revolutionary book written by Lucretius. The book focuses on everything outside of that, which was interesting, but also left me thinking, when are we going to get to Lucretius? Nevertheless, it was a fascinating book, albeit dense and at times dry. Best read in short bursts for the casual reader.

    16 of 23 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 06-17-14
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 06-17-14 Member Since 2007

    Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.

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    "SWERVE"

    “The Swerve” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction. This is high praise for Stephen Greenblatt which one may guardedly agree with; i.e. the guardedness is in the suggestion that the story reveals “…How the World Became Modern”.

    “The Swerve” is a book about books and the prescient insight of ancient philosophers that believed something to be true before science could prove it. Greenblatt’s thesis is that Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of an ancient text changed the direction of human thought. Like suggesting that Lucretius’ insight forged modernity, Greenblatt overstates Poggio’s discovery as the re-direction of human thought.

    “The Swerve” is an interesting book that suggests humanism pre-dates 19th century humanist philosophy by 2000 years. Considering Lucretius’ beliefs in man’s relationship to all things, the absence of a Prime Mover, a prescient belief in evolutionary selection, and particles that make the universe. Lucretius seems to pre-date Darwin, 16th century atheism, 18th century philosophy, 19th century science, and 20th century physics. “The Swerve” is quite an amazing story. Hopefully, there are many more swerves in humankind’s’ evolutionary journey.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    ivan guerra Hermosillo, Sonora 03-18-14
    ivan guerra Hermosillo, Sonora 03-18-14
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    "Very surprising information"
    Would you listen to The Swerve again? Why?

    Yes, definitely. I liked the story, I was very entertained, but also there is a large amount of information which I would like to review and reconsider.


    What other book might you compare The Swerve to and why?

    I would compare this book with books like Auerbach's Mimesis in that it traces an idea, a philosophical idea from its earliest manifestation to our own times.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    The first chapters on the life of Pogio are very entertaining. I think Greenblatt paints a very realistic picture and conveys what it must have been like during those years, searching for manuscripts and translating them.


    Any additional comments?

    The book deserves to be considered highly. The information it deals with seems to have transformed the way we presently think about natural phenomena, and yet, there seems to be a sort of blind spot between what we now consider the truth about the physical world and how we got there. This books seems to deal with that.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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