NPR Keeps Championing Book on the Survival of Atheism

NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich promoted the ancient atheist Lucretius on Monday's Morning Edition with the author Stephen Greenblatt. Then the network took a second bite of the apple on Tuesday's Fresh Air with Terry Gross when book critic Maureen Corrigan raved for six minutes over Greenblatt's book The Swerve as "part adventure tale, part enthralling history of ideas." It a "brilliant work of nonfiction" and a "profusion of riches."

It didn't matter how Vatican-bashing it sounded, since that's a plus for NPR:

At the center of "The Swerve" is the forgotten story of a 15th-century Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, who set out on several expeditions throughout monasteries on the continent and England, hoping to discover some lost classical texts. Poggio served as scribe and secretary in the papal court, a place he cynically thought of as the lie factory.

As in, the lie that is Christianity, or Catholicism? Corrigan explained the gloriously radical notions of the Roman writer Lucretius:

Among other radical notions, Lucretius, who was a follower of the philosopher Epicurus, claimed that all matter is composed of atoms; that matter is constantly in motion; that human beings return to this cosmic atomic dance when we die and that there is no religiously sanctioned afterlife; and, finally, joy in existence - not suffering, or atoning or endurance - is the point of life. Greenblatt says that some of the world shakers who would be directly influenced by Lucretius's ideas are Galileo, Einstein and our very own American apostle of the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Jefferson.

Surely, sales of Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" will spike as a result of Greenblatt's book: his awestruck discussions of the poem make it sound so weird and beautiful that most readers will want to give Lucretius a whirl themselves. And what a service Greenblatt has performed in bringing to light Poggio Bracciolini, a great explorer who discovered, not lost continents, but lost books.

"The Swerve" is one of those brilliant works of nonfiction that's so jam-packed with ideas and stories it literally boggles the mind. But throughout this profusion of riches, it seems to me a moral emerges: something about the fragility of cultural inheritance and how it needs to be consciously safeguarded. Greenblatt, of course, doesn't preach, but as a master storyteller, he transports his readers deep into the ancient and late medieval past. He makes us shiver at his recreation of that crucial moment in a German monastery when modern civilization, as we've come to know it, depended on a swerve of Poggio's grasping fingers.

It makes NPR "shiver" that a work of atheism miraculously survived to curse the idea of God for the ages.

Not everyone was wowed by this book, even in the liberal media. Take book critic Michael Dirda in The Washington Post:

But "The Swerve," an account of how the rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius shook up the Renaissance, is a work that a journalist or a hard-working amateur might have produced, a sprawling paraphrase of other people's research...In short, this is a book that feels a little mushy and over-sweetened, in the way of so much popular history with an eye on the bestseller list.

It’s doubtless clear that “The Swerve” rubbed me wrong, and, as I read, I kept wondering why, since this is just the sort of cultural history I usually like. Some reasons have already been mentioned, but ultimately I found the book strangely unserious. The prose was clear but lacking energy, the covered material largely consisted of borrowed finery, and the whole felt uncomfortably like an attempt to create a nonfiction pot-boiler in the shallow mold of “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis