Every once in a while you are lucky enough to find a book that is not only a great story, but a book that rocks your world. It changes the way you think, expands your world view, and makes you question what you have previously assumed. We hear Kevin Prufer is one of those lucky people; he can’t stop talking about The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction. We asked Kevin to share his find with us.
Inprint: The ideas in The Swerve are complex, fascinating, and timely. Can you briefly break them down for a lay person?
Kevin Prufer: Sure! I’m a lay person myself, right?
The Swerve documents the history of the recopying, translation and reception of Lucretius’ 1st century B.C. epic philosophical poem On the Nature of Things beginning with its 15th century rediscovery in Germany by Poggio Bracciolini. Does this sound like an especially dry PhD dissertation? It’s not. Greenblatt is an engaging writer with a sweeping historical vision and a love of adventurous narrative, papal intrigue, and gossip. And Poggio Bracciolini comes off as a truly memorable character, complex, witty, difficult, and brilliant. And, very much in the foreground of the many narratives is Greenblatt’s central argument, that the seductiveness of Lucretius’ Epicurean worldview—his beliefs that the universe might function without the aid of the gods, that matter is composed of millions of tiny particles, that religious fear is detrimental to mankind—caused a revolution in the way we thought of ourselves and the universe of which we are a part.
Inprint: Kevin, tell us a little about why this is significant to you?
Kevin: One of the things I love when reading history is that sense of engagement with the minds of those long dead, that they and I are, briefly, in a sort of conversation over the centuries. Put another way, I know that I — that we all—hold assumptions about the way the universe works. And those assumptions were born somewhere, in the minds of people who came before us, partly out of the vast conversation of writers of the past. When a scholar like Stephen Greenblatt helps to contextualize some of that—and does it so gracefully and with such erudition—it feels significant. That is, it makes me think about history in more complex ways, and it helps me understand why I am able to entertain the beliefs I have today.
Of course, On the Nature of Things is also a poem, and most of my own writing is in poetry. It is exciting for me to read a book about a poem that has had such an enormous influence on history – on science, theology, literature, etc. Especially these days, when people keep suggesting to me that poetry accomplishes very little for the world.
Inprint: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things changed history. Could The Swerve change history?
Kevin: That seems like a tall order. The book’s only been out a year. But it’s changed the way I think about history a little bit. And its very warm critical reception suggests that others feel similarly.
Inprint: Are you going to make The Swerve required reading for your students?
Kevin: If only I were a history professor for a semester! Right now, I’m teaching courses on poetry writing and the idea of “form” in poetry. In that way, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things would fit the syllabi better that The Swerve. But I’ll happily recommend Greenblatt’s book to all students. A deepened sense of history (and the ambitions to which a poem can aspire) can only do good things for their own poetry.