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Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace Hardcover – June 25, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0674055452 ISBN-10: 0674055454 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 228 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (June 25, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674055454
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674055452
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,671,896 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Avatars of the Word comments on the intersection of the history of written word and the explosion of cyberspace. Crafted with a meandering, laconic style, James O'Donnell wittily juxtaposes the modern and ancient.

Take, for example, the concept of the "virtual library." "The dream of the virtual library comes forward now not because it promises an exciting future," O'Donnell writes, "but because it promises a future that will be just like the past only faster and better." As children, many of us were raised with the sanctity of the library--the quietness, the beauty, the celebration of language, and the idea that this institution provides complete access to the "scarce resource" of information.

O'Donnell demonstrates that a future repository for knowledge cannot be based on the model of the "codex" (the first recognizable form for the traditional published book). Instead, we will be in a community where information is decentralized, no longer dependent on a finite circle of publishers. The importance of this shift can't be understated: countries base economics on centralized institutions, and--just as importantly--these places have psychological sway within us as keepers of our common humanity.

Unlike other authors who want to comment on the influence of the World Wide Web, O'Donnell--a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania--has a sound foundation with which to validate his theories. He grounds his assertions in the writings of philosophers from Sophocles to Derrida. Proposing his ideas with light humor and elegance, O'Donnell releases recent technological developments from their current clichéd context. --Jennifer Buckendorff

Review

It is the contention of James J. O'Donnell in his stimulating and well-written Avatars of the Word that the electronic era does not mean the demise of face-to-face education but its strengthening..."My purpose in writing this book," he states, "has been to make it clearer what is happening or what might happen by thinking about similar transformations in the past." Thus his first five chapters suggest ways of thinking about our own times from the standpoint of Latin late antiquity...Institutions still in place today were established then--churches, law courts, schoolrooms and libraries. The transition from oral to written culture took place and O'Donnell's meditations on the creation of print culture...are lucid, informative, and engrossing. His final four chapters, however, which analyze the humanities vis-a-vis the electronic media and focus on rethinking the modern university, give the book its true originality. "What happens to higher education when every student has a link to a flood of words and images, metastasizing in every imaginable way from around the world, and when every teacher and every student can reach out to each other at all hours of the day and night?" No one knows yet, but O'Donnell's thoughts on the subject are never less than provocative.
--Robert Taylor (Boston Globe)

Much of what makes this book useful as a guide to the future is the ways in which O'Donnell challenges us to reconsider the past. Previous "new" media arrivals have tended to supplement rather than supplant their predecessors. The tendency has been to consider the march of progress (from papyrus roll to codex manuscript to printed book) as a serial relay from one technology to the next, an oversimplification that equates the rise of the Internet with the fall of the book. In reality, each time a new medium appears there follows a period of coexistence in which a culture's overall dialogue is broadened. O'Donnell suggests today's new media are on the verge of offering their own benefits. Particularly for humanists, the author envisions the Web's hypermedia doing a better job than books at revealing complex truths. He proposes a new mode of scholarship in which the single-author, linear-narrative monograph becomes part of a larger discourse, where primary and secondary sources exist side by side, as do authors and commentators.
--Peter Meyers (Wired)

[James O'Donnell's] approach to the long-term effects of the computer revolution on reading and higher education feels like a bracing, sophisticated exchange of ideas...His purpose is to compare the transformation already begun within the electronic medium to earlier transformations such as those from oral to written culture in ancient Greece, the papyrus scroll to the codex manuscript, and the codex to the printed book...The impression left on this reader is of someone deeply excited by the changes occurring and enthused at the possibilities inherent in the new medium.
--Greg Nixon (Journal of Consciousness Studies)

O'Donnell approaches the ever-increasing distinction between a bound volume and a floppy disk by attempting to make clearer "what is happening or what might happen by thinking about similar transformations in the past." [O'Donnell] proves a most engaging guide, highlighting vignettes along man's media highway from rock carvings to offset printing...His illumination of our changing uses of speech impresses with both scholarship and presentation.
--Ralph Hollenbeck (The Citizen)

This splendid bound codex is required reading for all the dummkopf literary Cassandras who claim that the Internet will put the book out of business. Nevertheless, O'Donnell thinks there is some kind of information-technology revolution going on, and as both [a] professor of classics and vice-provost for information systems, he is happily placed to write a deeply cultured analysis of what it all means and to draw intriguing historical parallels. (The Guardian)

The lesson is that new media seldom drive out old. Instead, they rub along and interact in unanticipated ways. James O'Donnell, a classicist turned infotech guru, explores this ever-shifting ecology of communication in his eloquent new book.
--Boyd Tonkin (The Independent)

From the many strands of O'Donnell's academic life he has woven a consideration of the 'connections among speaking, writing, and reading today.' Avatars of the Word is, however, about ever so much more than those connections. The implications and importance of the book's contents are worth serious contemplation by all intellectuals—especially those who contribute to and draw from peer-reviewed scientific literature. The threads of Avatars lead from Socrates and Plato; through the Alexandria and other libraries, codices, Augustine, Cassiodorus, and both old and new liberal arts; to the virtual library, hyperlinking, distance education (and other threatening attributes of the 21st-century university) and the life of the mind in cyberspace.
--Michael A. Keller (Science)

Is there room on the shelf for more than one history of reading? James O'Donnell proves there is with his Avatars of the Word. His entertaining and anecdotal style and easy movement between past and present is reminiscent of Alberto Manguel's earlier work A History of Reading...A fascinating and important glimpse of a reading revolution that may affect us all.
--Paul Kincaid (New Scientist)

[Avatars of the Word] reflects in lucid, thoughtful, and thought-provoking prose on the textual foundations of Western culture and the evolving connections among the technologies for recording, distributing, and preserving the written word from the late Latin antiquity to our contemporary age of electronic information...O'Donnell points out that improvements and innovations in technology initially tend to be perceived simply as better ways to do familiar tasks. Over time, their cumulative effects, which cannot be foreseen, much less controlled, create new and different environments to which individuals and societies must adapt. In Avatars, O'Donnell has chosen to speak to the positive potential consequences of electronic texts even as he acknowledges that there are other, less desirable possibilities. (College and Research Libraries)

Avatars of the World is an extremely wide-ranging, engagingly readable, and thought-provoking book...The closing years of the twentieth century are indeed exciting times for the academic world and perhaps the greatest contribution that Avatars makes is to demonstrate the relevance and involvement of the study of classical antiquity in the debate. Classical scholars and teachers who are concerned for the continued well-being of their discipline in the rapidly advancing information age will enjoy reading it.
--John Hilton (Scholia Reviews)

In fulfilling his intentions, the author is interesting to cause one to enter, at any rate in the margins of his book, into frequent discussions with him: I should award him high praise.
--P. G. Naiditch (The Classical Bulletin)

The motivating idea behind the book is to offer a comparative examination of different moments of communications technology change: critically, from papyrus roll to codex (a change that I located in O'Donnell's period), but also from oral to written culture, manuscript to print and handwriting to typewriting.
--Ian Saunders (The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Mark Howells on April 24, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
There are without a doubt some brilliant ideas in this book. However, reading the book is a bit like mining for precious ore, you have to go through a lot of uninteresting rocks to get to the good stuff.
It would appear that the author had some serious ideas he wanted to publish and chose book format as conventional and lucrative. However, the book is a mish-mash of ideas that don't necessarily string together to form anything like a cohesive argument or narrative. While this non-linear presentation works well in cyberspace, it is a frustrating thing to deal with in book format.
It is heartening that a classics professor would tackle a subject like the change from print to electronic technology. His comparisons between the coming of the Internet and the rise of the codex in late antiquity are interesting. He clearly "gets" the Internet and doesn't consider it the big bad book-slayer.
The author sprinkles in some of his theories on education, particularly post-secondary. He poses interesting questions but provides no answers to those questions about the purpose of post-secondary education in the modern world.
Some of the ideas presented were compelling, the style of the book was difficult to handle, and his final comparisons between himself and Cassiodorus were a bit much. I could only give it two stars.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 10, 1999
Format: Hardcover
O'Donnell tries heroically to conflate the printed word and the hypertext of the present world. By feeding on the ancients for Latin and Greek sources, the author relates classical writings with those of the sacred scriptures. Aristotle meets Saul; Paul kibitzes with Cassiodorus.
O'Donnell himself is not sure where all this will end; it's too early in the first-half to hedge our bets, to see how far cyberspace (the "ether" as explanation for everything in the universe of nineteenth century Western thought; now monicled, "hypertext) will impact (that fatuous term of evaluations) the written or printed text. In truth, O'Donnell in spite of his Catholic, and catholic, reading of Aquinas, Aristotle, Horace, Juvenal, Apuleius, has no solid solution to the contexts: speech, memory, printed work, software; he's in a quandary, and apparently enjoying the fuzziness of the discussion. But nevertheless underlines the necessary undertaking of this word--hypertext forum.
This is an important book; get it; borrow it; read it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Gregory Nixon on September 22, 2001
Format: Hardcover
J. J. O'Donnell is one those scholars whose learning is assumed rather than displayed. As a result, his brief approach to the long-terms effects of the computer revolution on reading and higher education feels like a bracing, sophisticated exchange of ideas. Like conversation, O'Donnell's thesis is not terribly unified or orderly. He often makes sidetracks from his focus on high technology and literacy into explaining such interesting things as how we choose our cultural ancestry instead of merely evolving out of it, the errors of current education, and perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about other avatars of the word such as St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and Cassiodorus. Great cover too.
O'Donnell is uniquely suited to write such a book and to indulge in such digressions. He is Professor of Classical Studies but also Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania. His purpose is to compare the transformation already begun within the electronic medium to earlier transformations such as those from oral to written culture in ancient Greece, the papyrus scroll to the codex manuscript, and the codex to the printed book. ... O'Donnell proclaims that interactive `hypertext' was the original form of written communication. In fact, the book as a form of authorized mass communication has allowed individual and community freedoms to dissolve and centralized authority to legitimize itself. `Control over texts had brought control over people' (p. 37). Books will never disappear entirely, he prophesies, because of the public's love for a good, self-contained, often fictional narrative.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Avatars is about the connection between the history of the written word and the upcoming of the increase in Internet technology and cyberspace. The book explains how the written word is being challenged by cyberspace and what cyberspace may look like in the future. O'Donnell is a very witty writer, who keeps the attention of the reader. Writing about the Internet can get tedious, but O'Donnell keeps an interesting style of writing for the reader.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 3, 2005
Format: Paperback
At first I couldn't imagine how someone specializing in Middle English History could have anything cogent to say about the Internet. To my surprise O'Donnell has a lot to say and he says it well in a tightly crafted book that takes the reader from the dawn of civilization to the present.

Contrary to another reviewer's comments, I found the predictive portions of the book well thought-out and insightful. With each past shift in information transmission, the world has undergone huge upheavals. We can expect no less as the paradigm shift of the Internet makes its impact felt in the decades to come.

Stay tuned...
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