Jim Hinch argues that Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, deserved neither accolade:
I’m at a loss to explain how two distinguished prize juries managed to overlook the fact that The Swerve’s animating thesis is at best “questionable,” and at worst “unwarranted,” as Renaissance historian John Monfasani put it this summer in the online journalReviews in History. Still, to make clear the extent of The Swerve’s errors, I’ll go through Greenblatt’s portrait of the Middle Ages point by point. First, it may be true that “it is possible for a whole culture to turn away from reading and writing.” But that didn’t happen in medieval Europe. Indeed the Middle Ages are considered Europe’s most bookish era, a time when books — Christian, Greek and Roman alike — were accorded near totemic authority. Medieval readers and writers (not just clergy — lay culture was widely influenced by texts and documents, especially following the 10th century) were apt to believe anything they read in an old book just because it was old and from a book. This was especially true if the book happened to be by a writer like Lucretius, a classical author whose words therefore automatically carried the imprimatur of truth.