ONE YEAR AGO THIS MONTH, Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt stepped to the podium at the Cipriani Club in New York City to accept the National Book Award for nonfiction. Greenblatt won for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, a 356-page study of the transformative cultural power wielded by an ancient Latin poem called De Rerum Natura by a first-century BC Epicurean philosopher named Titus Lucretius Caro. Holding back tears, Greenblatt thanked, among other people, his publishers at W.W. Norton for committing to “the insane idea that they could sell a book about the discovery of an ancient poem by a Renaissance humanist to more than a handful of people.” In fact, by the time Greenblatt addressed the Cipriani Club’s gold-domed ballroom, The Swerve already had spent more than a month on the New York Times bestseller list, just as had Greenblatt’s previous book, Will in the World, a Shakespeare biography that came close to winning its own National Book Award (it was a finalist). Five months later, The Swerve won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The book remains a strong seller on Amazon.
Clearly, The Swerve spoke to far more than a handful of people. But as American book lovers gear up for another awards season — the National Book Award this month, followed by the PEN/Faulkner Award in March, then the Pulitzers in April — the acclaim showered on Greenblatt’s book about the discovery of an ancient poem raises profound questions about just what these awards really mean. Simply put, The Swerve did not deserve the awards it received because it is filled with factual inaccuracies and founded upon a view of history not shared by serious scholars of the periods Greenblatt studies. That such a book could win two of America’s highest literary honors suggests something doesn’t work in the awards system itself.
The Swerve, in fact, is two books, one deserving of an award, the other not. The first book is an engaging literary detective story about an intrepid Florentine bibliophile named Poggio Braccionlini, who, in 1417, stumbled upon a 500-year-old copy of De Rerum Natura in a German monastery and set the poem free from centuries of neglect to work its intellectual magic on the world. This Swerve, brimming with vivid evocations of Renaissance papal court machinations and a fascinating exploration of Lucretius’s influence on luminaries ranging from Leonardo Da Vinci, to Galileo, to Thomas Jefferson, is wonderful.
The second Swerve is an anti-religious polemic. According to this book, the lucky fate of De Rerum Natura is a proxy for the much more consequential story of how modern western secular culture liberated itself from the deadening hand of centuries of medieval religious dogmatism. “Many of [De Rerum Natura’s] core arguments are among the foundations on which modern life has been constructed,” Greenblatt writes in The Swerve. “Almost every one of the work’s key principles was an abomination to right-thinking Christian orthodoxy.” In other words, The World Became Modern when it learned to stop believing in God and start believing in itself. Here’s how Greenblatt describes the epic transformation Lucretius helped bring about:
Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the con...