Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Swerve — and What It Suggests for NF

One of the highlights of being at the National Book Awards was getting to meet Stephen Greenblatt — one of the leading advocates of New Historicism as a form of literary criticism. Both Marina and I had read and been deeply influenced by his work — Marina by his writing on Shakespeare and me by a piece on Ralegh. I had not, though, read his latest book, The Swerve, until my men’s NF group selected it (and I was not the selector). I am reading it now and it is terrific — you all should read it as an adult treat — but it also tells us something about the possibilities of our NF.

The book is, in one way, about a poem — by the Roman poet Lucretius, who was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The poem, On the Nature of Things, was lost for centuries — it was certainly not the kind of manuscript the medieval scriptora were likely to copy over many times and keep in circulation. But one copy was made, and found by the renaissance humanist Bracciolini Poggio. That is one level of the book. But another uses this basic story as a way to get us to fully understand the Renaissance — as we see first the Roman world, then the shift to the Christian world — with the shift in focus from pleasure to pain — to Poggio’s world with its crosscurrents of incipient splintering within Christianity, and the rise of a new sensibility — we really experience the swell of change that came with the Renaissance.

The Renaissance is a challenge for schools — it is crucial, and yet in the crush of trying to be fair to all peoples and cultures, not privilege the West, and “cover” everything it often gets lost. It becomes more names and dates of equal (and thus no) value to everything else. Greenblatt shows how following one person, one life, through this extraordinary time can make change vivid. Now in part that is because of the depth of research he has done — the endless details of lived and experienced life he has uncovered. That is a testament to his scholarship. But in the days of the internet, it is far easier to gather that kind of material — or at least find where the books are that you need to borrow through interlibrary loan. The book suggests to me that we need more books like this — not Daily Life in the Renaissance (middle ages…) but, rather, A Life in Extraordinary Tiimes — which helps us to experience, to feel, the swell of change.

I have not finished the book, so perhaps he spells this out, but it is clear by the midpoint that he also has a third theme. In contrasting the vision of a universe of atoms with no afterlife to the burnings at the stake of the church, he is also speaking to us now — to the ways religion is used today in our modern debates on gay rights, or abortion, or stem cell research. I doubt any of those terms are in this book — but he is tracing the long conflict of two belief systems, and it is easy to extend that to the present.

As a great read, as a model for our NF, and to stimulate thinking and discussion — read The Swerve.


  1. I’ve been looking forward to reading this–now even more so!