Tuesday, 17 April 2012
Boy do I have a treat for you: the next instalment of the My Favourite Book series by Kate Pruitt. I should have saved this post for next week while I'm away, but as soon as it fell into my inbox, I couldn't wait to share it with you all. Kate is a Senior Editor for Design*Sponge as well as an Online Editor for Anthology Magazine. I've known Kate for a while, and I really admire the way she approaches her creative work with a spirit of curiosity, intelligence and openness. She is also very kind, as is demonstrated by her willingness to discuss arty matters with me when I was writing a specific chapter for my book. Reading her guest post on her favourite book made me so grateful for her thoughtful contribution and even more convinced that this series where people talk about books and book culture is really something worthwhile. Thank you so much Kate!
First off, I am honored to be asked to participate. I'm a huge fan of Hila's writing and have followed the blog for some time now. Thanks for having me, Hila! I have some well loved books from my past, tried-and-true favorites that I pull off the shelf occasionally—usually as reward for persevering through a frivolous or disappointing read, or as a temporary diversion from a dense historical non-fiction and its endless slew of mind-numbing statistics. However, since most of my treasured books are so well known, I decided to focus on a new favorite, since the thrill of it is still fresh in my mind. I also consider this a favorite because it opened the door to so many other good reads that I would have never found on my own.
A few months ago I caved and got a Kindle, and my inaugural e-book purchase was Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. It wasn't until I started reading that I realized the irony of choosing to consume this work digitally: the first chapter shares the history of some of the world earliest books. In rich, fascinating detail, Greenblatt describes the process for creating paper in the 16th century. At the time most libraries of ancient texts were preserved by monasteries, and part of a monk's daily routine would involve the painstaking process of making paper and copying old texts. In our current era of e-books, blogs, and digital library archives, the concept of disappearing content seems impossible. Reading about an age where the written word was so vulnerable, requiring so much human effort to preserve, was such an eye-opening experience. It's both exciting and sad to think of all the information we could have today if the sole copies of manuscripts had not been neglected or destroyed.
The main focus of the story is not all ancient texts, but one in particular: an epic poem by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, entitled "De Rerum Natura", or "The Nature of Things" —that's a lovely turn of phrase isn't it? Tucked away in a monastery, the last surviving copy of this ancient text is discovered by a very interesting character, a man who served as apostolic secretary to several popes and one of the most famous book hunters of the period, Poggio Bracciolini. Poggio persuades the monks to allow him to borrow the text so that it can be copied and distributed. It goes on to become a seminal philosophical text, fueling the work of many revolutionaries across all fields: Botticelli, Galileo, Einstein, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson…too many incredible minds to count. It's a text whose radical ideas fueled the Renaissance, changed the world, and remain as relevant today as they were when they were written thousands of years ago.
For a work of nonfiction, The Swerve is a real page-turner. I realize it sounds super nerdy for a story about an ancient manuscript to get your heart racing, but trust me—this is a must read for historians, scientists, philosophers, and book lovers of all kinds. I suppose my one critique is that the story focused more on the life of Poggio the book hunter than on Lucretius, whom I found to be the more intriguing character. The decision on Greenblatt's part is understandable: with the exception of his epic poem, there is very little documentation about Lucretius left in existence, so the details of his life remain relatively unknown. Still, I would love to read another volume all about Lucretius in his day.
Have you ever had the feeling that a book landed in your lap at just the right moment? This is how I felt reading The Swerve. I have been watching a slew of TED talks lately, and reading articles about our current generation's conflict with the societal systems of today. So many of the questions posed by today's creative thinkers are the same questions that "On the Nature of Things" brought to the forefront all those years ago. I felt connected to the past in many ways while reading this book, and as an avid reader it was a special treat to learn more about the history of books, and of humanity's passion for learning and communicating to future generations through their writings. As I read the last lines of The Swerve, I was reminded of what Carl Sagan said about books in an episode of Cosmos:
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object, made from a tree with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it, and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time."
The printed word is indeed a remarkable invention, and it was wonderful to follow the journey of one precious text—from its dark, musty hiding place in a monastery, into the hands and hearts of so many influential thinkers. I hope you enjoy The Swerve as much as I do. If you are like me, you will immediately rush out to read the original Lucretian text, De Rerum Natura, next. Luckily, there are numerous translations to be found on Amazon. Now we know who to thank for that :)
Image sources (from top to bottom): 1. The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 2. Example of Poggio's handwriting, 3. Lucretius translated by J. Evelyn.