My Christmas reading – Swerving

I’ve enjoyed the Christmas break. I finished up Borge’s short stories, which were superb.

I also finished The Swerve, which was an interesting and overall enjoyable read.

I should add that I’m not a historian – I enjoy pop history, but I don’t have the expertise to really evaluate it critically. But I liked The Swerve – it was interesting to see how an idea played out over time; how it influenced different spheres, how the idea travelled at different points. Because as I think about it, that’s essentially what Stephen Greenblatt is doing. He talks about history (and the edition I read is sub-titled How the Renaissance began); but the focus is really on ideas; through history, certainly, but his thesis is on the transmittal of that idea across, time, space, and human societies.

If I had a criticism, it’s that he doesn’t flesh out that aspect of his story well. He tells a great story, and does it in a readable, and easy to follow way; we hear about book hunting, about the main characters, about the tangential dramas they encounter. There’s gossip on different aspects of the societies that are relevant – Roman, different late medieval settings, and the Renaissance.

But when it comes to talking about the idea, and how it shaped society, it feels a little tenuous at points. Granted, the nature of what he’s writing about is probably such that you can’t do something exhaustive. But it feels tenuous to quote a few passages from Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, and a few other authors to argue that the idea was causal. Perhaps it’s simply that I don’t have a background in the area; but it seems like quite an unsupported assertion. At the very least, it would have helped if he’d acknowledged some of the many other influences and factors that were at play. At points, it felt as though he was simply saying ‘and so, this idea is used that is similar to the one I’m focusing on’.


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