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Unexpected good reads can smite Stephen Greenblatt

pat greenhouse/globe file

In the award-winning “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” Stephen Greenblatt followed the trail of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” that revolutionized European thinking and fueled the Renaissance. For his next project, Greenblatt, a humanities professor at Harvard University, tackles a story that changed history: Adam and Eve.

BOOKS: What are you reading for your current project?

GREENBLATT: There’s a huge amount of work on Adam and Eve, from the ancient world to the present. Saint Augustine was obsessed with them. Milton was also obsessed. I don’t know if it helps my research, but I get a big kick out of Mark Twain, who wrote “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.” He wrote very funny stuff on them. I sometimes read things that are loosely related to what I’m thinking and writing about. I’m reading Hans Kummer’s “In Quest of the Sacred Baboon.” It’s wonderful. It’s a scientist’s journal about baboons, but it relates to the search for human origin.

BOOKS: What have you read just for pleasure this summer?


GREENBLATT: I was in Venice teaching, so I reread Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove.” I love James. I also began to reread “Tristam Shandy” by Laurence Sterne, but I interrupted that after my wife and I saw the movie “Far from the Madding Crowd.” That is one of the few Thomas Hardy novels I haven’t read, and I am reading that now. I also started Joseph Finder’s “Killer Instinct,” because my 14-year-old son adored it.

BOOKS: What’s the last book you picked up randomly and ended up loving?

GREENBLATT: Robert D. Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts,” which is about the very complicated and murderous Balkan Wars. A couple of years ago I picked up New Yorker writer Alma Guillermoprieto’s “The Heart That Bleeds,” which is reportage from Latin America in the 1990s. You can predict that some books will give you a thrill, but you can’t predict the books that will hit you hard. It is a little bit like falling in love.


BOOKS: What other books have hit you hard?

GREENBLATT: When I was quite young I came across a collection of Kafka stories and read “The Judgment.” I was just floored by that story. I couldn’t understand it. I still don’t. I’m talking about something I read more than 50 years ago. That story left a little scar on me. In high school I read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and loved it. Then I read Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals” and that hit me hard. I don’t know where I got it. My parents warned me not to mention either of those books when I went for my college interviews so I wouldn’t seem like an egghead. They told me to talk about sports.

BOOKS: Do you have a book in your collection that is precious to you?

GREENBLATT: One of my favorite writers is Michel de Montaigne. My wife gave me a beautiful 17th-century edition of Montaigne’s essays translated by John Florio. That’s probably my most precious possession. A friend gave me a 17th-century edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The History of the World,” which he wrote while imprisoned in the Tower of London. I have lots of things that aren’t so old that I value, such as a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which he signed for me.


BOOKS: What were people’s relationships with books in Shakespeare’s time, in the 1600s?

GREENBLATT: They didn’t have many books. They would have been staggered by the personal libraries we have today, because books back then were incredibly expensive. Literate households in the 17th century would have had the Bible, John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and a couple of other books. Shakespeare plays were cheap, so you could buy those, but a folio cost a pound, which was an incredible amount of money then.

BOOKS: Do you put on white gloves to read your 17th-century books?

GREENBLATT: No, but I don’t pick them up when I come in from garden with dirt all over my hands.

Amy Sutherland

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