The four textbooks for my online European History course arrived early Friday morning. I was sitting around in my blue fleece polar bear pajama pants, drinking coffee when the doorbell rang. Besides the fact that my mom and uncle used to hit the floor and hide when unexpected guests arrived on their driveway, I can’t really explain the adverse reaction the doorbell causes in our house. My fully dressed son looked out the window and seeing the Canada Post truck, ran for the hills. “C’mon Ben! I’m in my pajama pants!” I pleaded. “Just answer the door!” I heard the lock on his bedroom door click. I’m recounting the experience as therapy today. Thank you for listening.
What is the enchantment of new (and of course, old) books? I already own more books than I may ever read, and yet can barely resist the lure of Amazon, the book aisle in Superstore, local bookstores or other people’s libraries. One of the most exciting things about my European History course is its four textbooks. Four! Good books become objects of meaning. They mark the history of our personal growth, becoming trophies of new knowledge and insight. I like to keep my books in full view, as visible road maps not only of where I’ve been, but where I’m going. They spill from bookcases, sitting in piles on table and floor, reminding me of who I am.
Last summer I was introduced Stephen Greenblatt’s, Pulitzer prize winning book, The Swerve. Greenblatt, a professor of Humanities at Harvard, tells the tale of Poggio Bracciolini, a 14th century Italian scholar who went on a treasure hunt for lost manuscripts in French, Swiss and German monastic libraries. Through good timing and good fortune, Poggio eventually found an important manuscript, the De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). This first century BC poem, is written by Lucretius, explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. Seen as the most dangerous of ideas, the poem suggests that the universe functions without the aid of god(s), and that religious fear is damaging to human life. In richly poetic language, it also explores Epicurean atomic physics and questions of the mind, soul and thought. Greenblatt’s thesis in The Swerve is that the rediscovery of this manuscript shaped the thinking of the early Renaissance. He argues that this swerve in thought also influenced Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein, eventually leaving its trace on the Declaration of Independence.
I found The Swerve a sparkling read. Some scholars and critics didn’t agree with me though. Some thought that Greenblatt was molding history to fit his personal ends (as if that was something new), criticizing his portrayal of the Renaissance as ‘an outburst of light after a long medieval darkness.’ Others saw it as an anti religious polemic, reacting with swift indignation, even suggesting Greenblatt’s award be rescinded. But the general public mostly received The Swerve as a brilliant work of non-fiction.
As for me, I swept up in the book hunter’s pursuit of ancient manuscripts in dusty monasteries and scriptoriums. Equally so in the tales of Herculaneum libraries by the sea, papyrus rolls and the academia of ancient Greece. I was inspired to follow-up with Greek, Renaissance and Medieval art history courses, and this summer’s European history course. I’m sure over time, I’ll reach my own educated conclusions on “How the World Became Modern” but I’m grateful for the introduction to some very compelling ideas. If you happen to be interested, History of Medieval and Renaissance Italy professor William Caferro offers the most balanced review of The Swerve I’ve come across.
History needs storytellers, weavers of words that spark our imagination and interest. Otherwise some of us would never stick our big toe in its luminous waters and what a shame that would be. Maybe one day I’ll become so learned and crotchety and stickler-ish that I’ll be offended by The Swerve too. But I’ll probably keep it, it’s settled in amongst the library of art and history books in the roman garden urn in my living room. And besides, you know what they say about a truly great library…