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Mares: The Swerve

06/05/12 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(Host) Commentator Bill Mares is an educator, writer and former state legislator whose early summer reading list includes a Kindle edition of a standard book... about a manuscript copied in vellum... from the original written on a papyrus scroll.

(Mares) I was absent when my book club chose to read “THE SWERVE” by Stephen Greenblatt. What was this, I wondered, a book about highway safety, or dancing? The answer was in the sub-title: “How the world became modern.” That did seem a little pretentious, like a USA Today headline.

However, praise festooned the book like a Christmas tree. It had even won a Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Here, I thought, might be another popular history, like Thomas Cahill’s notable HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION. So I read it on my own - and I’m glad I did. The book lived up to its acclaim as a feast of ideas and Renaissance history.

To me the book was a re-birth of a re-birth, an almost journalistic treatment of the re-discovery of ancient thoughts from before the Christian era. It was good to be reminded that these ideas did not re-appear suddenly, like Botticelli’s Venus on the sea shell. In fact, Greenblatt’s literary device was a kind of detective story in which a long forgotten papal secretary - one Poggio Bracciolini - and others searched for lost or forgotten Latin manuscripts across Europe.

Bracciolini came across his greatest find in a drafty, dank, dark monastic library in Fulda, Germany. It was a vellum manuscript of De Rerum Natura, “On the nature of things,” by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius.

In college I had been bored by Lucretius’ poem, but now with Greenblatt’s guidance it came alive for me. Lucretius, who lived roughly 100 years before Christ, espoused the Epicurean philosophy of a relentlessly materialist universe where gods exist but don’t interfere. Atoms, much like our modern idea of them, are the building blocks of the cosmos. The atoms tumble, wobble or swerve (hence the book’s title) and collide in space. From these collisions come various complicated, sophisticated agglomerations, including people. Nature experiments endlessly.

The message of Lucretius could have been a modern atheist’s credo: Live life to the fullest, because there is no tomorrow, no souls, no afterlife, no divine architect, and no intelligent design. I was fascinated to learn that in a time of tumultuous Church politics, Bracciolini was allowed to hunt for manuscripts like this one - so very contrary to Church teaching.

To buttress his case for Lucretius’ modern relevance, Greenblatt contends that Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein were fans, and that Thomas Jefferson owned at least five Latin editions of “On the Nature of Things.”

“The Swerve” is full of detours on such topics as book collecting, paper making, libraries and calligraphy. In the manuscript copying room of one monastery, Bracciolini found a curse that – as a reluctant lender of books - I love.

It goes like this: “For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy… and all his members blasted. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails. Let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”

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