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The Swerve

How the World Became Modern
Narrated by: Edoardo Ballerini
Length: 9 hrs and 41 mins
4 out of 5 stars (2,429 ratings)
Regular price: $24.95
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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

Critic Reviews

"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)

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Too many swerves

Truth be told, I have not quite finished the book, I have read about 3/4 of it, and I am running a bit out of steam. Unless the author is.

The Swerve is amazing in some regards, but it is also problematic, at least for me.
First let me say that the narrator is perfect. In addition to having a beautiful enunciation and pace, he obviously knows Italian, convincingly integrating all these Italian names in the English text. (I am French, and too often cringe at the French pronunciation of some otherwise excellent narrators).

The rationale for the book, the history of the discovery and rediscovery of the ground breaking On The Nature of Things, written c. 50 b.c.e by Roman philosopher Lucretius, is fascinating. My jaw dropped when The Swerve first revealed what was in that ancient poem of which I knew nothing. (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't read it yet.)

The historical and sociological backgrounds are fascinating. I have a passion for the history of books as objects, and that was honey to my ears. You will learn a huge amount about bookmaking, the scribal profession, the importance of lettering, as well as the role of Christianity and the Church on culture, knowledge, science, taste, sex, love, pleasure, pain... in brief, on Western human LIFE. You'll learn how all of the above is connected to books, libraries, collections... and politics, wars, papacy, schisms, heresy.... and then some.

And this is where, in my view, the Swerve puts you on info overload. Don't get me wrong. It is ALL interesting. And I want to hear it all. But maybe not in one single book, the premise of which was to tell me the story of an ancient manuscript. The background too often takes center stage, and feels like a massive digression. He could almost have written one book with each of those digressions into the societal history of the time.

Another problem with the Swerve, which is related to the volume of information it contains, is the time lime. Until the narration settles on the life of the genial Poggio Bracciolini in 15th century Italy, the first 1/4 of the narration repeatedly shifts between Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Renaissance, making the sequence of events rather confusing.

I am at the point in the story when Poggio has died, and I find myself loosing interest in the narrative. The author had succeeded in making Poggio so real, that I felt I was reading a novel. Without Poggio, I find the Swerve to sound a bit more like a history textbook. Maybe I am only suffering from "Poggio withdrawal". I will finish it. Maybe it will pick up steam in a while.

Overall, I highly recommend the Swerve. It is very well written. It does not feel like a theses. The language is elegant and accessible. What you'll learn about The Nature of Things alone is worth the read.

93 of 98 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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Very compelling history, a less compelling thesis

The Swerve is a Pultizer-prize winner, and justifiably so. In a compact way, it manages to tell fascinating, well-researched, stories of both the Epicurean philosophers during the Roman Empire, and the intellectual and religious struggles of the late Middle Ages. These two threads are both really well done, and full of fascinating and illuminating details: monks were not allowed to discuss the books they copied, Epicurus presaged our modern understanding of atoms and evolution, the Papal secretary wrote a joke book, and so on. Greenblatt just does a wonderful job in illuminating these time periods, and how they relate to our own way of thinking. Similarly, the reader is excellent, and the many languages invoked in the book flow naturally from him.

The only downside, and it is a small one, is in the argument itself, that the discovery of the poem "On the Nature of Things" was a critical event in that led to the world becoming modern. I was convinced that the rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly one of the elements that led to the "swerve" and the Renaissance, but there are already other forces at work, many alluded to in the book, that play at least as big a role. However, Greenblatt really wants to make the poem central, though, so we get a somewhat more evasive account of other factors, such as the popularity of humanism, that were also important. As a result, the book becomes a little strained in its main argument, but it doesn't detract from a wonderful historical account. Greenblatt uses all of his considerable ability to make his argument, one that you may or may not buy, but that you are certain to enjoy if you like Medieval, Roman, or intellectual history.

142 of 151 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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Note to self: Read more Greenblatt

Ah, Stephen Greenblatt. How much I prefer you to Harold Bloom. You prove things, not just assert them. You have a clear narrative, though not lacking in complexity. I really have to read more Greenblatt.

The title is a bit misleading. How the world became modern? In what way? The narrative of this history revolves around the book On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. It is a beautifully written Latin poem that describes a world view familiar to modern-day atheists, philosophical Buddhists, and physics lovers. All the universe made up of moving atoms that form and fall apart and form other things. That being true, there are no gods, so enjoy the life you have before it is over forever. Don't mistake this for the reputation of Epicureanism of mindless pleasure. Real Epicureanism is more Buddhist, attempting to take pleasure in the now without excess, mindful that life has disappointments.

This text nearly disappeared during the Medieval period until a Renaissance book lover found it and saved it from obscurity and destruction.

The narrative first follows the philosophy in the ancient world, its restoration by the Italian book collector, then its spread in intellectual life throughout the centuries, influencing many writers and thinkers, including the American Founding Fathers.

This is a compelling read. Though 400+ pages, you don't feel them. It moves quickly, with stories, anecdotes, analysis, and appreciation of the fortunes of history and the beauty of an old poem.

44 of 47 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 06-11-12

Exciting, I couldn't wait for the next page

Books like this ruin it for me since they are so much better written (and read) than the average. Each page is exciting and I couldn't wait for the next. How an author can do that about an era which I've avoided because of its dryness is a compliment to the author. What I like best about the book is now I feel like I'm a scholar of the Italian Renaissance and the Epicurean movement! I never knew that something about book binding, Epicurean philosophy, script development and a poem could keep me on the edge of my seat and eagerly awaiting for the next paragraph.

You don't have to have the faintest interest in the Italian Renaissance or Latin Poetry to appreciate this book. The author is that good of a writer, and he will make you anxiously await the next page.

42 of 47 people found this review helpful

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A long read on a failed premise

First, this book has an excellent narrator. It's a long book, but it is well written so it is interesting most of the time, except it goes into too much detail into many aspects, as if the author wanted to prove its knowledge by the number of pages.

If you have never read anything about the 15th Century or the Renaissance, you may find all these detail interesting, including long descriptions about how monks were dedicated to copying and maintaining books.

Listening to this audiobook you will probably spend a couple hours learning about the failings of the church during this era, which are well documented, which starts to set the tone for the fundamental point of the book: The poem On the Nature of Things, written in the first century, re-discovered in 1417, an event that is overly over-documented in the book.

The poem’s central idea is that the world is made of random events, the universe was created randomly, by chance. It’s interesting because it accurately describes scientific facts like atoms many centuries before they were scientifically discovered. However, it has an aspect of pseudoscience, which is not surprising coming from a poet in ancient times.

The whole book is centered on the idea that this God-less reality where everything is physical and random will set you free from superstitions and allows humanity to focus on the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. It’s a very long stretch any way you look at it.

The author claims the poem influenced the modern world, but I find those links very weak. In fact, the while he claims De Rerum Natura influenced Einstein, while he wrote about the invisible architect whose work is evident in how things, from atoms to galaxies, work. Einstein wrote "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind." recognizing the matter is not black and white and that science and religion converge.

If you want to learn about the Renaissance, the book The Medici, by Paul Strathern is a much more accurate, much richer account of the Renaissance, including the failings of the Church, and its role in the creation of our modern World.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Jeff
  • Pickering, Ontario, Canada
  • 04-10-13

REMARKABLE STORY OF INTELLECTUAL SPLENDOR

Despite reading this in spurts over a long period of time, I enjoyed it immensely. For me it was a wonderful great multifaceted intellectual adventure. I not only enjoyed a great story, I learned a great deal about books, facets of history and how art and knowledge have been lost and found over the ages- resulting in major impacts on thought, politics etc. I found the whole thing utterly fascinating and surely deserving of a very attentive second read. There is so much to love and go on and on about in this rare gem. On reflection I think that this may be one of the most profound books Ive ever read- but strangely it actualy manages to be profound in so many differing areas and that is rare indeed!!

18 of 20 people found this review helpful

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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.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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Wonderful

Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of a treasure hunter of the 1400's who unearths a remarkable manuscript. But there is another story told about the way ideas are disseminated and remembered as well as censored and forgotten. The radical shifts of cosmological views during the Renaissance are also explored through the colorful characters that are touched by the ideas contained in the ancient manuscript. For those who love books, for those who love ideas, and for those who enjoy seeing how the two can change the world, this is a great listen.

The narrator is also wonderful. The right pace and a clear voice.

31 of 36 people found this review helpful

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  • James
  • Baltiomore, Maryland, United States
  • 03-23-13

Mis-leading title

What disappointed you about The Swerve?

The book provides too much information about the circumstances and persons contemporary at the time of the "rediscovery" of The Swerve. But this book is NOT about actual philosophical influences that The Swerve had on modern humanistic thought. This book's title choice of The Swerve was purely a marketing decision, and not a reflection of the book's content. Be wary that you are buying what you think you are.

What was most disappointing about Stephen Greenblatt’s story?

The content of the book is not an accurate reflection of how it is marketed.

Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Edoardo Ballerini?

Narration was fine

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Disappointment in Audible. I had thought Audible to be more conscientious regarding the accurate presentation of books' content. I guess one got thru the cracks.

Any additional comments?

If you want to learn about the minutiae about the man who rediscovered The Swerve, then you will enjoy this book. Analogy; if a book is titled "Assembly Line, modernization of manufacturing", you would expect details about just that. Instead, according to this publishers marketing plan, the book will only be about the life of Henry Ford. You will learn more than you thought possible about Henry Ford. But, you will learn nothing about the advent of the Assembly Line.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Carole T.
  • Shepherdstown, WV, United States
  • 06-24-12

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!

14 of 16 people found this review helpful