Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘Swerve’

NPR, National Public Radio is one of my favorite things. Every time I listen to a program there is something relevant. I might learn something about really wonderful artists in my community, or hear an interview with Stephen Greenblatt, the rock star of Early Modern scholarship. Dr. Greenblatt’s work first came to my attention a few years ago when I began studying English and Comparative Literature. Many of the titles he has authored are ‘Essential Reading’ in several of our courses. After reading so many of his books and essays and spending so much time thinking about his theories actually hearing him read Lucretius’ ‘On the Nature of Things’ on the radio was startling and inspiring. It was like meeting someone you have only seen in the media; the shift from two dimensions to three is unnerving.

 Dr. Greenblatt’s theories can be a little unnerving to the unsuspecting student. His writing on the ‘Subversion Containment Dialectic’ has engaged me for 3 years now. It is challenging but rewarding to apply a bit of theory like this to the literature I am reading; so far the Subversion Containment Dialectic has resulted in 4 papers on two texts. What I really enjoy about Dr. Greenblatt’s writing is the way it stays on my mind and influences my thinking.  His new book, ‘The Swerve: How the World Became Modern’ is a little lighter, and not literary scholarship.’  For me, a little interesting, light reading that explores ideas and history is a welcome change of pace. How the world became modern is a fascinating, provocative topic particularly because I am reading Renaissance literature this term. And Lucretius’ ‘On The nature of Things’ is one of my favorite texts.

 My favorite texts in our degree study are Early Modern ones; even though the language can be challenging I enjoy the work because I find the period interesting and the personalities fascinating. For me, this makes Greenblatt’s New Historicism a very natural and appealing approach to texts. Hearing him discuss the essence of New Historicism in the context of a favorite text and fascinating period in an accessible way helps me sort out how theory works in practice, if you will please pardon the pun.

 Thinking about how theory works in practice is important this year because I want to express a more considered opinion about the texts I am reading. Working out how to read and write about a text from a specific theoretical position is really kind of exciting. Hearing Dr. Greenblatt discuss how he first became interested in Lucretius’ work was funny. He found the book in a sale bin for a few dollars forty years ago when he was a Yale undergraduate. It is very inspiring, and even a bit relaxing, to think about him spending dozens of years noodling over Lucretius.  Contemplating texts over time is, perhaps necessarily, the norm in English studies.

 My study norms and engagement with the texts I enjoy so much has changed a lot over the last few years. My study process is largely the same, but my appreciation of literature has increased enormously. Listening to Dr. Greenblatt reminisce about his engagement with ‘On The nature of Things’ reminded me to enjoy the study process as I hurtle toward my degree and to expect my opinion about texts to develop and change. There are a lot of swerves in my development as a student. I am looking forward to every one of them, along with a cup of tea and a good read and listening to NPR tomorrow morning.

One thought on “Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘Swerve’

  1. Hi Catherine, I notice that you are from the US, too. I’m wondering whether we need to “use” “British English” whenever we take the English exams. If so, do you have any tips on how I can learn to do it? I believe that it’s much more than spelling some of the words differently (e.g. colors vs colours etc).




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