The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

No, this is not a book about a new dance or fan craze. Swerve or the Latin word "clinamen" comes from the first century B.C. poet, Lucretius. It is " expected, unpredictable movement of matter"--in the context of the theme of this book think of a pivot in history or historical hinge.

A common question asked of historians and teachers today is whether there has ever been an invention as historically significant or that has changed society and culture as dramatically as the internet? When historians reply yes or even nonchalantly "oh sure", students stare at you with a look of both disappointment and disbelief. How about Pi, double entry accounting, steam engine, automobile, television, gunpowder, movable type, or even the horse stirrup of the 7th century? Read The Victorian Internet (1998) by Tom Standage. It shows how the invention of the telegraph changed and affected the 19th century just as much if not more than the new technology of today.

The Swerve author, Stephen Greenblatt, adds the "codex" to the high impact invention list. He reminds us what a codex is and its historical significance: "Most books in the ancient world took the form of scrolls...but by the fourth century Christians had almost completely opted for a different format, the codex, from which our familiar books derive. The codex has the huge advantage of being far easier for readers to find their way about in: the text can be conveniently paginated and indexed, and the pages can be turned quickly to the desired place. not until the invention of the computer, with its superior search functions, could a serious challenge be mounted to the codex...."

This entertaining, captivating, and, for book lovers, exhilarating book traces how and why a two thousand year old poem, On The Nature Of Things by the Roman Lucretius, was crucial in influencing and bringing about humanism, the scientific revolution of Francis Bacon, Bruno, Galileo and Copernicus, the Reformation, art emphasizing the individual, Enlightenment, Montaigne (over 100 quotes in his essays), Jefferson (owned five copies) or, in other words, the Renaissance and modern world!

Renaissance means rebirth. Rebirth of what? Greek and Roman writing and thought were a casualty of the fall of Rome and yes, the middle ages were dark. People forget how little of the ancients was saved or rescued. As the author reminds us, we have no surviving Greek or Roman manuscripts--everything are later copies. Of Aeschylus' eighty or ninety plays and one hundred twenty by Sophocles, only seven of each have survivedAlso, how much was lost--Of the 123 Sophocles plays only 7 survive. Of Euripides' ninety-two, only eighteen and only eleven of Aristophenes' forty-three! Didymus of Alexandria wrote more than 3,500 books of which only a few fragments survive. The fifth century scholar, Stobaeus, compiled 1,430 quotations of famous ancient authors. 1,115 are from works that no longer exist. After reading Books On Fire: The Destruction Of Libraries Throughout History (2007) by Lucien X. Polastron, its amazing we have much of anything.

Also see Murray's The Library: An Illustrated History (2009) and Library: An Unquiet History (2003) by Maththew Battles. Did you realize today's library architecture--reading room and stacks stem from ancient Rome? The search for the writings of the ancients began with Petrarch in the 13th century. Those who recovered, copied, edited, and wrote about ancient texts or studied the humanities were the early humanists. Some of these became famous as both scribes noted for their clear and elegant handwriting (remember penmanship?) and book hunters. One of the most famous and successful book detectives was Poggio Bracciolin As I read, I vicariously transported myself back walking in his sandals--remember the quiet, musty stacks of your college library.

While on a book hunting expedition to a remote monastery in 1417, Poggio came across an old manuscript. His hands shook, heartbeat accelerated, and he experienced a shortness of breath. It was the book find of the millennium. It was Lucretius' complete 2,000+ line poem, On The Nature Of Things. It had be lost for over a thousand years! Hold on, what's the big deal about a mere poem? Well, if you were an unsuspecting 15th century reader, how would you contemplate the following: "Everything is made of invisible particles" (atoms), "The elementary particles of matter--are eternal...and infinite in number", "All particles are in motion", "Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve...the swerve is the source of free will", "Nature ceaselessly experiments and the universe was not created for or about humans and humans are not unique nor is there an afterlife?" It easily made the Index Of Forbidden Books and, of course, such books can be fatal. See Giodano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (2008) by Rowland and Michael White's The Pope And The Heretic (2002)

In the age of computers, The Swerve reminds us all how vital the written word, books and libraries were to both preserving and advancing civilization. I know a teacher that still uses Robert B. Downs's 1970 Books That Changed America. In 2011, this reaffirming and celebrating codex won the National Book Award for nonfiction. How appropriate and timely that we have a book analyzing the cultural influence and historical significance of an ancient text or "print" resource or hard copy on modernity published just as the "book" as the primary means of dissemination of information and knowledge is declining, and "non-print" information retrieval vehicles--Kindles, Nooks, apps, Ipods, Ipads, and downloads are in ascendancy.

Another lesson historians learn is that nothing lasts forever--change is inevitable. The "Book" or Gutenberg Age began around 1440 with the invention of movable type. I'm one of those "codex" librarians. And perhaps, the last "book" generation --yes, I typed out catalog cards. However, I suppose we "book" people really can't complain. We did have over a 500 year run! 356 pages.

Recommended and required reading by all librarians and in all library schools. Robert L. Hicks, Arkansas City High School Librarian, Arkansas City High School Library Arkansas City, Kansas 67005 USA

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