Stephen Greenblatt is that rare thing: a formidable scholar with mass appeal. He launched himself into the firmament of contemporary literary theorists as a pioneer of New Historicism. Many outside the academy know him for “Will in the World,” his generous, best-selling biography of William Shakespeare, and for “The Swerve,” his Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning work about how the Epicurean poet Lucretius helped rescue Western culture from the Dark Ages. Most recently, he edited with Peter Platt “Shakespeare’s Montaigne,” the Elizabethan linguist John Florio’s translation of the French essayist, out this week from NYRB Classics. Greenblatt, who teaches at Harvard, lives in Cambridge with his wife, Brandeis Renaissance scholar Ramie Targoff, and their son.
A BEAUTIFUL MESS: I do some work at home, but I do most of my work in a study in the Widener Library. It’s one of the greatest libraries in the world, but [my study] is a bit of a mess. I have so many books and papers . . . that I didn’t want to take a photo there.
MARRYING EFFORTS: My wife and I go to Vermont in the summers, and we have studies next to each other. We did a book on Sir Thomas Browne [“Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall”]. We truly did it together, in the sense that we drafted the introduction and shared our texts with each other.
GRAZING THE SHELVES: In the case of “The Swerve,” “Will in the World,” or the book I’m working on right now about the story of Adam and Eve, there’s an enormous, daunting body of work on these subjects. You can’t do this [research] quickly. I tend to be omnivorous; I love going through enormous numbers of things. I’ve always been this way. While I go through an enormous amount of books and articles, I also know rather quickly if it’s something I need or don’t need. I try not to squelch my curiosity. In college, I found the shelf in the library with the new books that hadn’t been assigned call numbers [yet], and I would graze it and see where they ended up. I still have that kind of curiosity. I don’t read everything, but with these projects . . . there’s such a huge amount of new material, I try to get control of it as not to be completely swamped.
KEEP IT MOLTEN: Writing is a balance. If you wait too long [to write after you’ve started your research], then you’ve accumulated so much stuff that you hardly get the space to write — it’s like a tidal wave. If you start writing too quickly, it tends to harden on you like concrete . . . I try to keep it molten.
DESCARTES BEFORE “OF COURSE’’: I, like most academics when we write for other academics, expect a very small number of readers who happen to be already engaged in the subject. [When you write for a general audience], you might think you make a huge jump out to a different world. The truth is, though, I never believed that the gap is as big as academics think it is. When I was a freshman in college, someone said in a lecture, “It was Descartes, of course, who said that . . . ” I thought, of course? Who’s Descartes? What do you mean of course? I always resented that particular tone that academics take, that you should already be in the know. I had never heard of Descartes, and there was no reason I should have. The single biggest difference in writing for a narrow academic audience is not simplifying or talking down — I hate all that language. It’s just not true. If you want to mention Descartes, you explain who Descartes is, and you don’t say, “Of course.’’
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson @gmail.com