The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

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"The Swerve" redirects here. For other uses, see Swerve (disambiguation).
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Author Stephen Greenblatt
Country United States
Language English
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher W. W. Norton & Company
Publication date
September 26, 2011 (hardcover)
September 3, 2012 (paperback)
September 19, 2011 (kindle)
Pages 356
ISBN 978-0393064476

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a book by Stephen Greenblatt and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction.[1][2]

Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's On the Nature of Things from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.[3][4][5]

The title and the subtitle of the book are explained in the author's preface. "The Swerve" refers to a key conception in the ancient atomistic theories according to which atoms moving through the void are subject to clinamen: while falling straight through the void, they are sometimes subject to a slight, unpredictable swerve. Greenblatt uses it to describe the history of Lucretius' own book: "The reappearance of his poem was such a swerve, an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory—in this case, toward oblivion—on which that poem and its philosophy seemed to be traveling."[6] The recovery of the ancient text is seen as its rebirth, i.e. a "renaissance". Greenblatt's claim is that it was a 'key moment' in a larger "story.. of how the world swerved in a new direction"[6]


The book was widely critically acclaimed. In addition to winning both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, it also won the Modern Language Association James Russell Lowell Prize.[7] Publishers Weekly called it a "gloriously learned page-turner", and Newsweek called it "mesmerizing" and "richly entertaining". [8] Maureen Corrigan, in her review for NPR, said that "The Swerve is one of those brilliant works of non-fiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind." [9] It was included in the 2011 year-end lists of Publishers Weekly,[10] The New York Times,[11] Kirkus Reviews[12] and The Globe and Mail.[13]

As a Renaissance scholar, Greenblatt seems surprisingly ill-informed about the Middle Ages that serve as a background for his study. Consequently his treatment of the period has been met critically by experts on medieval European culture, as well as other academic historians.[14][15] The theologian R. R. Reno observes that "The Swerve [blusters] again and again about the beauty-loathing, eros-denying evils of Christianity ... sighing in the usual postmodern way about pleasure and desire".[16]

The book has been described as "a full-throated Burckhardtian, or, perhaps more accurately, Voltairean caricature of the Middle Ages, a Whig interpretation of the period as a pleasure-hating time of darkness, superstition and illiteracy in which classical culture was lost".[17] Greenblatt dodged these charges simply by slyly acknowledging his support for the Burckhardtian view of the historical significance of the Renaissance.[18]

In the Los Angeles Review of Books Jim Hinch, while acknowledging that the book had been "showered with acclaim" saw in it "two books... one deserving of an award, the other not" and suggested that the first "book" is an exciting exploration of the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, deserving of an award, while the second book amounts to nothing more than "an anti-religious polemic." He went on to state that "The Swerve’s primary achievement is to flatter like-minded readers with a tall tale of enlightened modern values triumphing over a benighted pre-modern past." and that "I’m at a loss to explain how two distinguished prize juries managed to overlook the fact that The Swerve’s animating thesis is at best “questionable,” and at worst “unwarranted”, [19] and that

"The Swerve is a story about transformation and triumph. And without a caricatured Middle Ages of self-hating religious dogmatists Greenblatt has no clean-cut transformation and no clean-cut triumph. The complex truth about medieval Europe, indeed about all historical periods — that pleasure and pain, love and hate, faith and doubt, curiosity and stupidity, superstition and rationality, existed everywhere and at all times in complex and varying measure — is not so easily packaged as a narrative and so is less likely to top bestseller lists. But that doesn’t absolve Greenblatt of responsibility for getting his facts right. Unless, of course, that wasn’t his goal.":

Michael Dirda, of The Washington Post, wrote that that book "simply sets its intellectual bar too low, complacently relying on commonplaces in its historical sections and never engaging in an imaginative or idiosyncratic way".[20]

William Caferro of Vanderbilt University wrote that "The author is more concerned with providing novelistic touches that embellish the narrative than with detailed historical analysis" and that "Not all historians would agree with Greenblatt’s quick, colorful sketches, which are impressionistic and take little account of the current scholarship...What is far more disquieting from the point of view of the professional historian is the firm distinction Greenblatt makes between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages".[21] Nevertheless he concedes that "if Greenblatt leaves us with more questions than answers, it is ultimately not a grave flaw. The Swerve offers an engaging portrait of the Renaissance sense of wonder and discovery".[21]


  1. ^ The 2012 Pulitzer Prize Winners: General Nonfiction, Columbia University, retrieved 2012-05-28 
  2. ^ 2011 National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction, National Book Foundation, retrieved 2012-05-31 
  3. ^ 'The Swerve': When an Ancient Text Reaches Out and Touches Us, PBS, 2012-05-25, retrieved 2012-05-31 
  4. ^ Garner, Dwight (2011-09-27), "An Unearthed Treasure That Changed Things", The New York Times, retrieved 2012-05-31 
  5. ^ Owchar, Nick (2011-11-20), "Book review: 'The Swerve: How the World Became Modern'", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2012-05-31 
  6. ^ a b Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern W. W. Norton & Company, p.14 ff.
  7. ^ Modern Language Association James Russell Lowell Prize [1]
  8. ^ The Swerve: How the World Became Modern - Review [2]
  9. ^ The Swerve: How the World Became Modern - Review [3]
  10. ^ Year-end Lists - 2011 Books [4]
  11. ^ Year-end Lists - 2011 Books [5]
  12. ^ Eric Liebetrau, Kirkus Reviews Best Non-Fiction of 2011, [6]
  13. ^ The Globe and Mail, The Globe's top 100 books of 2011 [7]
  14. ^ Hinch, Jim (2012-12-01). "Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters". Los Angeles Review of Books. 
  15. ^ O’Neill, Tim (2013-01-27). "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt". Amarium Magnum. 
  16. ^ Reno, R.R. (December 2011). "A Philosophy for the Powerful". First Things. Retrieved 2013-01-16. 
  17. ^ Monfasori, John (July 2012). "Review of The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, (review no. 1283)". Reviews in History. Institute of Historical Research. 
  18. ^ Greenblatt, Stephen (July 2012). "Author's Response to Review of The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, (review no. 1283)". Reviews in History. Institute of Historical Research. 
  19. ^ Jim Hinch, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Why Stephen Greenblatt is wrong and why it matters
  20. ^ Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve,” reviewed by Michael Dirda
  21. ^ a b William Caferro, Review of The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began, Modern Philology (2013), v.111, online

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