by Robert Harbison. Reaktion, dist. by University of Chicago Press, October 2015. 208 p. ill. ISBN 9781780234472 (cl.), $35.00.
Reviewed January 2016
Jasmine Burns, Image Technologies and Visual Literacy Librarian, Indiana University Bloomington, email@example.com
Ruins and Fragments is a meandering commentary that weaves together narrative fragments, which are held together loosely by themes of decay. Harbison strings together a series of virtually unrelated stories of the author's own commentary on a variety of topics that range from scenes in movies, to entire philosophical movements across time and space. Each textual fragment illuminates the many ways in which people create and interact with ruins. The text moves seamlessly though genres, time periods, and built environments in a discussion of social and artistic movements and their ruinous outcomes, modern interpretations of historical texts that Harbison finds fragmentary, and literature/art/architecture ruined by time, war, and ideology. These frequent and numerous abrupt changes of subject make for a complicated read and eliminate the possibility of a formulated synthesis of the entire text. However, Harbison does provide a rather poetic juxtaposition of physical, literary, and narrative fragments and ruins. He discusses words and brush strokes as a performance of ruin, as well as specific paintings/texts/buildings made to resemble a state of decay. Although there is rarely a mention of the consequences of such outcomes, the overall themes are consistent throughout.
The structure and style of this book will likely be problematic for an academic reader. There are no citations; there is only a section immediately following the main text entitled "Notes," which provides varying levels of context for the content on the numbered pages. The style does not read like a scholarly text, but rather a running commentary that makes grand statements that are more poetry than substantial academic theory. The commentary is conversational and assumes that the reader is intimately familiar with Buddhist theology, Joyce's Ulysses, Brutalist architecture, and post-war art movements, to name only a few topics. This narrative style is emphasized by Harbison's casual tone, where he notes that he cannot remember certain details about a subject or object, and explains how he was personally marked by ruined places that he has visited. In this way, Harbison introduces an element of nostalgia to the text that simply wouldn't fit into a more traditionally structured work.
The book itself contains 226 pages of text, forty-five black and white images, the "Notes" section, and an index. The hardcover volume is well bound with quality paper. The suggested audience for this title is multidisciplinary scholars in the arts and humanities, including advanced graduate students.