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Old 06-21-2013, 06:20 PM   #16
Billi
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I am also about halfway through and though I like the book and find it very interesting it is a little bit too much fiction for me.

And the choice in the book club comes to early for me (yes, that's my fault, not your's). I have the book "The Forgotten Revolution"
(http://www.amazon.com/The-Forgotten-...1848850&sr=8-1)
about science in old Greece on my reading list and would have prefered to read this book beforehand.

Speaking of the middle ages there is a theory that a few hundred years have not been, are just an invention (the time around 700-900). I don't know if this theory has some truth or is just plain rubbish, but I find it quite fascinating and when reading historical books I always look if I can find some arguments for this or that point of view. In this regard I could find only very little in "The Swerve" until now. But this is of course not the topic of the "Swerve", just a sidenote by me.
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Old 06-21-2013, 07:47 PM   #17
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I'm about halfway through. <snip>

I'm interested in how he weaves Of the Nature of Things into the Renaissance. I'm not going to be easily convinced that one poem was "responsible" for modern thought. History doesn't take place in a vacuum, there were a lot of other influences at the time, plus other Greek and Roman philosophers and scholars were read throughout history.
Ok, I'm done. And there was very little evidence that the poem had much to do with the Renaissance. Some oblique references to atoms by a few and a resurgence of Epicurean ideas isn't very convincing. But who knows what triggers ideas or where the tipping point was. I suppose his premise is possible, if not plausible.

A question for those who have read On the Nature of Things, were there as many wild and wrong-headed ideas as there were right-thinking ideas? It seemed to me that Greenblatt cherry picked, and I'm curious if my impression is correct.
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Old 06-21-2013, 08:11 PM   #18
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I really don't think that Greenblatt was trying to claim that the rediscovery of this one poem started the Renaissance all on its own. May I quote Tom's post from the poll thread as I think it sums the situation up very well:


I've started reading the book, and for what it's worth, despite the impression given earlier in this thread via his critic, Harold Kirkpatrick, the author does not appear to be claiming that Lucucius' book was the sole cause of the enlightenment. From The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, location 185-187:
Quote:
There is no single explanation for the emergence of the Renaissance and the release of the forces that have shaped our own world. But I have tried in this book to tell a little known but exemplary Renaissance story, the story of Poggio Bracciolini’s recovery of On the Nature of Things.
And from location 188-190:
Quote:
One poem by itself was certainly not responsible for an entire intellectual, moral, and social transformation—no single work was, let alone one that for centuries could not without danger be spoken about freely in public. But this particular ancient book, suddenly returning to view, made a difference.
Quote:
Originally Posted by sun surfer
...I was also going to vote for The Swerve but then I went to read more about it on its Amazon page and came across some critical reviews including an excellent one by "Harold Kirkpatrick" here, which includes this paragraph:
Quote:
Greenblatt seriously overstates the role of Lucretius, whose influence, until the mid to late 18th century was arguably quite marginal. Peter Gay's The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism, unfortunately not mentioned by Greenblatt, deals at length with the influence of Lucretius on French Enlightenment thinkers, many of whom really were "pagans", i.e., materialists and epicureans. The standard view, of course, is that a revival of Platonic idealism, not of "pagan" materialism, was responsible for the Renaissance preoccupation with beauty and harmony.
Plato may have had a large influence upon the Renaissance, but he certainly didn't impress at least one Enlightenment thinker (who just happens to be the subject of the other book I nominated). The "whimsies of Plato's own foggy brain" was a common phrase Thomas Jefferson used in reference to Plato, as seen in his letter to William Short dated October 31, 1819:

Quote:
His prototype Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious of their own invention.
and
Quote:
Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon; for Plato makes him one of his Collocutors merely to cover his own whimsies under the mantle of his name; a liberty of which we are told Socrates honestly complained.
There's also a Jefferson quote that refers to Plato as having a"third rate mind", but I don't seem to be able to find it at the moment. Of course, as a despiser of democracy, Plato would have been a natural target of Jefferson's animosities.
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Old 06-22-2013, 12:22 PM   #19
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I will just enjoy the book as it is, and as I've said before; I do have some objections to the scientific claims of Greenblatt. But I like to see how the journey, the quest for the manuscripts, goes. Greenblatt shows us a nice view in the life of Poggio.

There are as many scientists as there are opinions, including mine. Defining time periods as Middle Ages and Renaissance are controversial etc, etc.

Hamlet53; I liked your view on Lucretius and will try to read the poem On the nature of things, if I can find the time.
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Old 06-24-2013, 05:00 AM   #20
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Some further thoughts while reading:
No doubt Greenblatt is a raconteur. I thoroughly enjoy his descriptions of how the book, as we know it today, developed, the scrolls-papyrus-vellum and the copying of manuscripts in the monasteries.

But I keep questioning him; not a bad thing for a writer like Greenblatt I think. A good book can stand some 'pummeling' around.

I find that he walks over history with very light feet.
Spoiler:
P.49.'Between the sixth century and the middle of the eighth century, Greek and Latin classics virtually ceased to be copied at all. What had begun as an active campaign to forget—a pious attack on pagan ideas—had evolved into actual forgetting. The ancient poems, philosophical treatises, and political speeches, at one time so threatening and so alluring, were no longer in anyone’s mind, let alone on anyone’s lips. They had been reduced to the condition of mute things, sheets of parchment, stitched together, covered with unread words.'

P.52.'Who knew what was sitting on those shelves, untouched perhaps for centuries? Tattered manuscripts that had chanced to survive the long nightmare of chaos and destruction, in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire, might well have found their way to remote Fulda. Rabanus’s monks could have made the scratching or gagging sign for pagan books to copy, and those copies, having fallen into oblivion, would be awaiting the humanist’s revivifying touch.'
What about the Arab expansion into Spain during the Umayyad Caliphate, A.D. 661–750? This will lead to the Islamic Golden Age (ca. 850-1250) which precedes and contributes to the Italian Renaissance (ca 1200-1600) in Europe. A period of great cultural changes that marks the beginning of the early modern Europe.
After the Islamic conquests in Andalusia (Spain), famous Islamic scientists work and live in the great cities of Andalusia: Cordoba, Sevilla, Granada and also in Toledo. Hellenic philosophy, science, medicine and literature is translated into Latin and gradually changes the medieval science, till then dominated by the ideas of the Catholic Church.

And this swerve of the world....which world does Greenblatt mean? His narration till now seems to center on Germany and Italy. What about the rest of the Western world?

I'm only halfway through this book, but I hope to see some of my questions answered. I find I cannot read this book only on the superficial level of the search for a manuscript.
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Old 06-24-2013, 07:30 AM   #21
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Originally Posted by Synamon View Post
...A question for those who have read On the Nature of Things, were there as many wild and wrong-headed ideas as there were right-thinking ideas? It seemed to me that Greenblatt cherry picked, and I'm curious if my impression is correct.
Lucretius was frequently uncannily modern in the way he perceived reality, but he was just as frequently spectacularly wrong. I don't have access to my notes at this time, but I'll try later to point out some examples and give chapter and verse to back them up.

One example I can give off the top of my head of where he was very wrong was in the origin of species. He was right in his assumption that many species must have existed in the past that became extinct over time because they weren't adapted to the environment—here he sounds almost Darwinian in his thinking—but he believed that all these species, the successful as well as the unsuccessful, were created at a time when the earth was still young and capable of producing species via a method that sounds a lot like spontaneous generation. He seemed to have the idea in mind that species were fixed and unchangeable. The idea of descent with modification seemed foreign to his thinking.

No, I don't think Lucretius was the be-all end-all cause of the Renaissance, and in fact, to my mind his influence was far smaller than Greenblatt would have us believe, although I do think the case can be made that his influence upon the Enlightenment was quite substantial. Jefferson, to give just one example, famously referred to himself as an Epicurean.


Off-topic side note: I hate the iPad's autocorrect. If you see a "we're" where a "were" ought to be, or an "it's" where an "its" is called for, now you know why.
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Old 06-24-2013, 09:50 AM   #22
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I do agree with you, desertblues, as I felt Greenblatt missed any mention of the Arabs and their scholarship, which is why I mentioned them some time back.

Thanks for the comments on Lucretius, Tom.

I think this has been a really interesting discussion this month.
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Old 06-27-2013, 02:16 PM   #23
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This is a book I never would have picked up on my own, and yet, I've enjoyed it very much. I cannot quote chapter and verse on its historical accuracy, but I do have to say that Greenblatt spins a great yarn. I actually listened to the audiobook from the library and can highly recommend the audio edition...though it is not a good method for bookmarks and notes.

His description of the fall of Rome struck me, primarily because I'm an educator, and a mention was made of the education system falling apart as the economics and city declined. While I'm not a fatalist, it struck a chord as we've been furloughed quite a bit, have schools closing this year and even had a law about how many days a student has to attend school being changed right here in my own city/state. So, while it was just a mention in the book, it jumped out quite a bit during my read.

I don't participate in the discussions much, but love this spot in the forum. Thanks all for a great read this month!
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Old 07-12-2013, 10:37 AM   #24
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I finished this late and didn’t feel as if I had much to add to the discussion, but now that I’m reading Fanny and Stella I’ve been thinking about it again. I know this isn’t the time or place for talking about F&S, but reading the two books so close together has me considering what seems to be a prevalence of so-called “narrative nonfiction”. When I look over the nominations for nonfiction month, it seems to me that most of the selections were more or less of this particular subset and it would also include such choices as Beautiful Forevers in the other club. It poses a lot of issues for me.

I was one whose reaction to Swerve was that Greenblatt was entirely too familiar with the workings of Poggio’s mind. Greenblatt clearly knows his stuff and I was entertained by his lively intelligence and broad range, which made for an entertaining read, but ultimately in such a short book, at a scanty 200 pages of text, the proportion of speculation to hard fact did a disservice to the treatment of the discovery and dissemination of a seminal text, which after all was the theme of the book.

Compounding this, Greenblatt tried to have it both ways. I agree that he didn’t specifically claim that Lucretius was single-handedly responsible for the Renaissance. But the title, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, explicitly does make that claim. Ah, marketing! A book the general public could read and feel as if we’re smarter than we really are! And pat ourselves on the back for our taste and acumen. Then of course the Pulitzer and the NBA served to heighten that impression.

Part of this is the issue of the popular historian v. the academic historian. There’s nothing wrong with popular history (David McCullough, for example, some of whose books are better than others, although I’d never read another word from that plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin no matter how well regarded), but I tend to expect more from an academic historian whose credentials are front and center. I think the hybrid, academic historian writing popular history is dangerous, setting up impossible expectations and tending to discourage critical evaluation at least by the reading public and the popular press.

Obviously there’s a continuum regarding just how much narrative is appropriate to a particular nonfiction work and I’d argue that subject matter plays a role. I already plan to revisit these issues with Fanny and Stella, lol. But I’m concurrently reading an also-ran from this month, The Sleepwalkers, and it’s something of a relief to be reading a highly researched and detailed work where inference is based on the facts as presented in the text and clearly labeled as such.

Last edited by issybird; 07-12-2013 at 10:41 AM.
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Old 07-12-2013, 03:14 PM   #25
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Originally Posted by issybird View Post
(...)I was one whose reaction to Swerve was that Greenblatt was entirely too familiar with the workings of Poggio’s mind. Greenblatt clearly knows his stuff and I was entertained by his lively intelligence and broad range, which made for an entertaining read, but ultimately in such a short book, at a scanty 200 pages of text, the proportion of speculation to hard fact did a disservice to the treatment of the discovery and dissemination of a seminal text, which after all was the theme of the book.

Compounding this, Greenblatt tried to have it both ways. I agree that he didn’t specifically claim that Lucretius was single-handedly responsible for the Renaissance. But the title, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, explicitly does make that claim. Ah, marketing! A book the general public could read and feel as if we’re smarter than we really are! And pat ourselves on the back for our taste and acumen. Then of course the Pulitzer and the NBA served to heighten that impression.

Part of this is the issue of the popular historian v. the academic historian. There’s nothing wrong with popular history (David McCullough, for example, some of whose books are better than others, although I’d never read another word from that plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin no matter how well regarded), but I tend to expect more from an academic historian whose credentials are front and center. I think the hybrid, academic historian writing popular history is dangerous, setting up impossible expectations and tending to discourage critical evaluation at least by the reading public and the popular press.

Obviously there’s a continuum regarding just how much narrative is appropriate to a particular nonfiction work and I’d argue that subject matter plays a role. I already plan to revisit these issues with Fanny and Stella, lol. But I’m concurrently reading an also-ran from this month, The Sleepwalkers, and it’s something of a relief to be reading a highly researched and detailed work where inference is based on the facts as presented in the text and clearly labeled as such.
Yes, Issybird, I couldn't agree more with you here. It seems these days that all history has to be popularized.
The novelist who writes a novel, lightly based on historical facts, seems to me to be more honest in his writing than an academic, trying to reach the public by whatever means he thinks fit.
The latter tends to give me somewhat of an aftertaste and that is what I get when reading The Swerve, however well it is researched.

I am also reading the Sleepwalkers and am gratified at the attention to historical research and report, especially when reading about Serbia. My impression
Spoiler:
This is (perhaps) another view on the First World War, in which my country was neutral. But in that war, there was a crisis, unrest, as there were trade barriers and food shortage because of that war. Also the Spanish flu, a world epidemic, took many lives. Revolution in Russia, attempts in Germany and even in the Netherlands (Troelstra).
As the writer states: there's been a lot of analysis, documentation about the prelude of this war from the different countries involved. All with their own story.
I know in England many sons of the aristocrats went to war and almost a whole generation of young men was wiped out, or returned shell-shocked and mentally crippled for life.
I am interested in the role of Serbia; the gap between its unrealistic nationalism and the reality of those days. Also the role of the French, who loaned money to that penniless, highly explosive, state. All of what is written about that period of the Serbian history should be taken in account when thinking, discussing the massacre of Srebenica in 1995 during the Bosnian war. That still is a trauma in our country, because of the role of the Dutchbat. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebreni...
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Old 07-12-2013, 05:10 PM   #26
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Originally Posted by desertblues View Post
Yes, Issybird, I couldn't agree more with you here. It seems these days that all history has to be popularized.
The novelist who writes a novel, lightly based on historical facts, seems to me to be more honest in his writing than an academic, trying to reach the public by whatever means he thinks fit.
The latter tends to give me somewhat of an aftertaste and that is what I get when reading The Swerve, however well it is researched.

I am also reading the Sleepwalkers and am gratified at the attention to historical research and report, especially when reading about Serbia. My impression
Spoiler:
This is (perhaps) another view on the First World War, in which my country was neutral. But in that war, there was a crisis, unrest, as there were trade barriers and food shortage because of that war. Also the Spanish flu, a world epidemic, took many lives. Revolution in Russia, attempts in Germany and even in the Netherlands (Troelstra).
As the writer states: there's been a lot of analysis, documentation about the prelude of this war from the different countries involved. All with their own story.
I know in England many sons of the aristocrats went to war and almost a whole generation of young men was wiped out, or returned shell-shocked and mentally crippled for life.
I am interested in the role of Serbia; the gap between its unrealistic nationalism and the reality of those days. Also the role of the French, who loaned money to that penniless, highly explosive, state. All of what is written about that period of the Serbian history should be taken in account when thinking, discussing the massacre of Srebenica in 1995 during the Bosnian war. That still is a trauma in our country, because of the role of the Dutchbat. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srebreni...
Well, apart from the fact that Serbia lost every fourth citizen in the Great War
Spoiler:
I seriously don't see connection between Dutch non-doing in Srebrenica in Bosnia with WWI and Serbia. But here's just a gentle reminder from NZ history site
Serbia - Casualties
Population: 4.5 million (1914)
Military dead (all causes): 450,000
Civilian dead: 650,000
Serbia suffered more civilian deaths than military ones in the First World War. This makes Serbia unique amongst all the combatant nations. The reasons are to be found in Serbia’s landlocked location, which isolated it from friendly Allied states and left it at the mercy of the surrounding Central Powers. Serbia was blockaded from the start of the war, and the civilian population suffered badly from famine and disease. The repeated Austrian invasions destroyed much of the north of the country’s infrastructure and farmland. An outbreak of cholera in early 1915 killed 100,000 Serb civilians. Thousands more died alongside the remnants of the Serbian Army during its epic retreat across the Albanian mountains in November–December 1915.

The situation worsened after the conquest of the country by the Central Powers in late 1915. Still more civilians died as Austrian and Bulgarian occupation forces implemented a harsh regime of martial law. Thousands were executed or sent to internment camps and what was left of the country’s industrial and agricultural resources was stripped bare to supply the war economies of the Central Powers. Serbs struck back through guerrilla warfare which led to brutal reprisals from the Austrian and Bulgarian military authorities. This culminated in a mass uprising centred on the Toplica region in February 1917 that at its height drew in 25,000 Austrian, Bulgarian and German troops. An estimated 20,000 Serb civilians were killed or executed in two months by the occupation forces. This cycle of oppression, guerrilla warfare and death through hunger and disease continued to take its toll on the civilian Serb population until the end of the war.
Also
Military Forces

Army
Peacetime strength 1914: 90,000
Reserves 1914: 420,000
Mobilised 1914: 530,000
Total mobilised to October 1915: 710,000
In October 1915 the Central Powers launched their fourth invasion of Serbia. This time the intervention of Bulgaria proved decisive. Faced with certain defeat on their home soil, the Serbian government and high command decided to retreat to the Albanian coast and keep fighting rather than capitulate. At least 300,000 Serb soldiers and refugees attempted to cross the Albanian mountains in the middle of winter. Thousands died.

The survivors, 150,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians, were evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu by the British and French in December 1915. Eleven thousand Serbs failed to recover from their ordeal and died on Corfu shortly after arriving. After a period of rest and rehabilitation this remnant of the Serbian Army was re-equipped by the French and transported to the Salonika Front, where they served alongside French, British and Italian forces against the Bulgarians and Austrians for the rest of the war.

Volunteers recruited to Army-in-exile 1916 onwards: 15–20,000
The Serbian Army at Salonika was authorised by the Serbian government-in-exile to accept ethnic Serb or ‘Southern Slav’ volunteers from other Allied nations, notably the United States but also as distant as New Zealand and Australia. They also accepted former Austro-Hungarian prisoners-of-war of Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and even Czech ethnicity.
http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/kingdom-of-serbia-facts
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Old 07-12-2013, 05:57 PM   #27
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Originally Posted by desertblues View Post
The novelist who writes a novel, lightly based on historical facts, seems to me to be more honest in his writing than an academic, trying to reach the public by whatever means he thinks fit.
The latter tends to give me somewhat of an aftertaste and that is what I get when reading The Swerve, however well it is researched.
You're expressing my opinion exactly, here. I'll have more to say about it when we get to Fanny and Stella. There's something a little dishonest in the whole Swerve enterprise, which promised much more than it delivered, I think in a manner calculated to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

I didn't mean to hijack the thread. I know of at least two others who also planned to read The Sleepwalkers. Perhaps if there's enough interest we could start a dedicated thread.
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