Jenny Davidson

Columbia University

For the Love of Broken Things: My Father, Edward Gibbon and the Ruins of Rome

It was in the eighteenth century that historians first fell in love with the idea that one of the best ways of understanding the past would involve studying its broken remnants. Ruins and fragments, monuments and traces: a fascination with broken things has much to do with how Edward Gibbon came to write his magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My book will interweave that story, including the arc of loss and near-magical compensation by which Gibbon was able to transform his own difficult relationship with his father into fuel for the passionate pursuit of knowledge, with the story of my own father’s transformation late in life from a mostly broken person with a costly affinity for broken things to someone redeemed by his full embrace of the same hunger for knowledge of the world and how it works that drove Gibbon.

Jenny Davidson is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She has published eight books, four novels and four works of literary criticism (the most recent is Reading Jane Austen, for the Cambridge University Press series Reading Writers and their Work). Distinctions include a Guggenheim Fellowship and Columbia’s Mark Van Doren teaching award. She is currently at work on a book about how the historian Edward Gibbon came to write The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

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