A few days ago Shirley Tillotson asked the great question, in a comment on this blog, 'Wouldn't it be great if every month there were two or three really interesting trade paperbacks on Canadian historical topics on the Globe's bestseller list?'
Wouldn't it, though?
How about this as a model: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern? (Although I note the British edition had the more accurate subtitle, How the Renaissance Began, which is itself part of an answer. I guess North American publishers assume that we won't know what the Renaissance is!).
Up we come to the 15th century and the world of Poggio Braciolini and the other humanists who were searching for these manuscripts for the ancient world. We get a brief, poignant history of the Renaissance through this one story.
Greenblatt is splendid as he glides over the surface of academic debate. He takes in what is necessary but then continues his stride. Listen to him on the many ways in which the obsession of folks like Braciolini (and the Renaissance itself) wasn't, in fact, quite so unprecedented:
'Modern scholarship has found dozens of ways to qualify and diminish this obsession'
Oomph. That hurt! What does he mean? He is referring, of course, to the many other mini-renaissances, the many earlier points during the middle (not dark, no never dark) ages that had already flirted with the same ideas and practices and desires that Braciolini is bringing back to life.
This is what makes Greenblatt's book such a wonderful read. It's learned, but not academic. It tells a magnificent story. The research is rooted in years of complex academic scholarship. The story to be told, though, does something else. It tells a fascinating story. And it tells it well.