The book ‘The Swerve’ and why libraries are important forever.

For Christmas I was surprised to receive a package from my parents.  Years ago we stopped spending money shipping gifts for adults on the years we spent Christmas separately.  The gift was the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, and a note from my dad that this book shows the importance throughout history of librarian type people, science, and philosophy.

As a librarian I always have a list of books I want to read. So I did not get around to reading this right away.  When I did get around to reading it, I read it slower than fiction, maybe taking three weeks to complete it, and I learned from it. Now I want to learn more about the Ancient Rome and Greece, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance.

The Swerve starts out in the 15th century with telling of a talented scriber and book finder Poggio Bracciolini. This man lived a long life, came from obscurity, to a high-ranking Vatican worker, to taking a fall with an overthrown pope, and lastly to have riches into his old age. His talent was that he could copy texts like no one else. Before the printing press this had to be done. The book explains the process and materials monasteries and institutions used for centuries in detail.

One thing this person did later in life was search for rare texts. In the 15th century there was an interest in ancient Rome and Greece after a long time of suppression of unchristian thought. Poggio Bracciolini searched far from Italy in different countries to find rare books. The books found would not be originals but handwritten copies made over the centuries by dedicated Monks and organized by Monastery librarians. On one of these mission Bracciolini found On the Nature of Things by the Ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius. This was the scriber’s biggest find, and in his lifetime it sparked thought that influenced the Renaissance.

From a scientific view On the Nature of Things is very interesting because Lucretius explains atoms as very small particles of matter that make up the world. From a philosophical view the same ancient text is interesting because it says the purpose of life should be receiving pleasure. Later in The Swerve the author points out that Jefferson read On the Nature of Things and may have thought of the phrase, ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ from Lucretius philosophy.

From a religious view this books states that god did not make the world, these particles did. Also it promotes vice and excess in the name of pleasure. So the newly found Christian religion heavily repressed this work, and others.  The book The Swerve states most books in cities with substantial populations a lot of ancient pagan text were lost. These remote monasteries around Europe kept them alive by a systematic archive of book keeping.

The Swerve has a chapter that describes early Christians literally wiping out the opposing religious thought around 300 AD, and it emphasized that it happened very quickly, within a generation, or decades, or perhaps less time. This passage in the book made me think how quickly things can change. How quickly things can be suppressed and simply disappear.

I agree with my parents that this book The Swerve does honor the intellectuals and book people that maintained and made knowledge available throughout the centuries, since the first library in Ancient Greece.

Today technology is changing a lot of things, and some people think ereaders, cheaper technology, and online sharing capabilities take away from the importance of libraries.  There will always be a need for accessible places and devoted professionals to help navigate, and organize knowledge, and thought. Modern American libraries have been a unique and great resource for a few hundred years. With the constitution allowing freedom of press gives people the ability to gain an education, and knowledge. We have access to a lot of ideas and works that most countries suppress.

However flawed it may be it is great that everyone in this country can get a free education from kindergarten to twelve grade.  After that college and grad school are costly and time consuming. The public library is the only institution I can think of that makes a life long learning assessable to all. Individuals can self educate themselves through the resources of the library for academics and a variety of life situations.

Like in The Swerve that states Ancient Roman and Greece thought almost disappeared in a short timeframe the institutions of public libraries could be hindered by drastic budget cuts.  Americans should put a value on knowledge institutions like libraries and consider it a right to have availability of free resources and not an extra privilege or tax burden.

2 thoughts on “The book ‘The Swerve’ and why libraries are important forever.

  1. No arguments here on keeping libraries alive. Although, some may feel that education is not “free” anymore as plenty of people send their children to private schools for which they pay a premium price. Religion is an institution that many ascribe to; although most religions are derived from a pagan point of view, sadly, most religions don’t recognize the commonality that exists between each. I frequent libraries often and am amazed at the resources we have at our disposal. Wherever I’ve lived, one of my first stops is the library. I grew up going to the library and will always support this system of being able to learn, read and grow from a place that allows one to “owe” a book for a short period of time. Great post. Thanks, Matt.

  2. Thanks Brigitte! I like having my blog be on any topic I want. I go from reviewing a skate video to trying to defend libraries. I will try to write my library stuff to raise awareness of the proposed cuts.

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