This book is an interesting proposition. A single document, a poem, “On the Nature of Things,” changed the flow of history. That represents Stephen Greenblatt’s premise in the Swerve: How the World Became Modern. A poem written before the rise of Christianity, brought down by the dark ages and religion, that supposed a scientific rational behind the universe. Not such a bad premise. The Swerve follows Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini through his life, as he hunts for lost books hidden in monasteries.
Probably, first and foremost, the Swerve peers into how little survived the wrath of Christianity and monotheism. Greenblatt also notes how Christians had a fascination with sadomasochism, inflicting pain upon themselves. How they hated culture and learning, because it challenged their believes, all the while violating their own tenants. This isn’t anything new. There’s a reason that this thousand year period is known as the Dark Ages. Certainly, Greenblatt doesn’t seem to paint Christianity in a flattering light. They resulted in the downfall of civilization and civility, education and scientific advancement, for over 1000 years.
Still, there is nothing in his tone that denotes a personal distaste with Christianity, other then it’s well noted obsession with halting scientific progress and reason. This stand an important topic when considering the book because many might otherwise take his voice as arguments against religion. And, well reasoned and rational, they may be taken as such. However, here they are merely an accounting of events.
One of the interesting things about this book is that even though it officially clocks in at around 340 pages, the actual page count for the story is much shorter, only 264 pages. This is because the last 80 pages are entirely footnotes and explanations of references that might otherwise derail the intended narrative. I find this interesting because Under the Banner of Heaven also has many references, but they are placed as footnotes, at the bottom of the page, rather than the back of the book. This makes the book read much more quickly than it would otherwise appear.
One of the major weaknesses I find constant in the Swerve is Greenblatt’s tendency to switch time periods without warning. For example, in chapter 6, the Lie Factory, Greenblatt follows Poggio’s rise to power within the architecture of the papal structure. For most of this segment, Poggio is in his late-20’s to early-30’s. However, rather suddenly, Greenblatt discusses an incident that occurs when Poggio is over 70. This change in the timeline was thrown in suddenly, making for a confusing transition. For a few paragraphs, I remained unsure if I had been misreading the timeline for Poggio’s life or not been paying attention.
This might have been forgivable, except that Greenblatt reveals a proclivity for this tactic. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer manages his timeline in a non-chronological manner as well. However, when compared to Greenblatt, his transitions are much smoother and well defined, making it easier for the reader to follow along and not become lost.
Over all, there is a pattern, with Greenblatt starts with Poggio arriving at the monastery he finds the copy of [x] in, then revealing Poggio’s past. However, this pattern, due to Greenblatt’s tendency to jump around in time, is hard to spot, not becoming clear until around page 130. This is far too deep into a book. If the time line is that confusing, a reader may decide to put the book down with no incentive to pick it back up.
Another weakness Greenblatt reveals is his inability to decide on a tone for the book. What I mean by this is that he changes between speculating what may have happened and taking incidents for fact. This change of tone and definitive assertion even appears within the same paragraph. An example reveals itself in chapter 2, Greenblatt asserts that there is no way to know which monastery Poggio was headed to, going so far as to say he may have intentionally withheld that information for political reasons. Greenblatt then definitively states what Poggio rehearsed to himself as he stepped off his horse and attempted to gain access to the monastery.
I suppose I might have been less forgiving of either take, definitive assumptions or speculation, if Greenblatt did not switch between both so wantonly. There seems to be little reason for why he choses either at any given time, other than dramatic tension. In fact, many times the choices come across as Greenblatt making a decision which suited his need for the narration. Again, that may not have been a problem if he’d only stuck with one and, maybe, not have made the choices as blatant.
I’m not sure how to recommend the book. On the one hand, definitely interesting. But I don’t think it is well written. Certainly well researched and no one who reads it will come away with the impression that Greenblatt is ignorant or did not do his research. In the end, it depends on what you think of the topic matter. If the Renaisance fascinates you, this book should definitely make your pull list. If it doesn’t, there isn’t anything about it that I can seriously recommend to you. Certainly, the ideas themselves are interesting, but the particulars of this mans life do nothing to add to already common knowledge that anyone who was paying attention in history class wouldn’t already know. Though, given the state of public school systems that may end up being rather gracious.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a decently passable accounting of history with definite flow and pacing flaws. None of these render the book irrecoverably damaged but it certain does nothing to draw in a reader who has little knowledge or prior interest in the topic.