I went into this book expecting something completely different than what it actually offered. It’s unfair to hold the book responsible for that disappointment. And yet, how do I talk about a book without bringing all of my expectations and experiences to bear?
What I wanted was a discussion of De rerum natura (or, as I like to call it because I’m largely uneducated in the classics, On The Nature of Things) and how it flowed through the philosophy of the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment and on to our present day. As the book’s subtitle says, I expected a story about “How the World Became Modern”.
What the book offered was the biography of one Poggio Bracciolini, a scholar, Papal secretary, and avid book-hunter. Through Poggio’s story, Greenblatt weaves the tale of how ancient manuscripts were restored to history alongside meatier Church intrigues and, in large part, the birth of Protestantism. It’s a compelling story and Poggio has an interesting biography. But it wasn’t at all what I was expecting to read.
Greenblatt does eventually spend his final pages (in the last chapter, “Afterlives”) tracing the history of the philosophy itself as opposed to the history of the physical pages it was written down on. But this is such a whirlwind tour that it’s ultimately unsatisfying and fairly ephemeral.
So my only complaint about this work is one for the marketing department and not the author. Had it been marketing as a biography of a book-hunter and his times, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.
As that biography, it’s a quite enjoyable work. It’s scholarly but written in a light and unassuming style that’s suitable for a general audience (like myself). More than half of the book is taken up with the endnotes which leaves the prose uncluttered and fun-to-read.
Anyone who, like me, picks it up entirely because it won a Pulitzer will not regret it.