- Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
The last chapter of James O'Donnell's thoughtful and highly readable book is entitled "Cassiodorus: Or, The Life of the Mind in Cyberspace." The subtitle made me think of the cyberenthusiast John Perry Barlow's claim that cyberspace is in fact the new home of Mind. In a brief tract published on the Internet a few years ago, "A Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace," Barlow claimed that cyberspace is a new world, freed from the prejudices and traditions of the cultures of our physical world. Barlow is in many ways O'Donnell's opposite number. Where Barlow, like so many other proponents of cyberspace, rejects the relevance of history for our electronic future, O'Donnell anchors every step of his analysis in the history of writing. Where Barlow is frenetic, O'Donnell is calm. O'Donnell considers electronic writing as the latest in a series of technologies of writing, each responding to and shaped by its contemporary culture. The main lines of O'Donnell's argument--his comparison of contemporary literate culture to earlier cultures of the papyrus roll, the codex, and the printed book--are familiar from other sources. But O'Donnell's profound and easy learning enables him to add fresh insights and examples on every issue.
O'Donnell's strategy is to explain the meaning of electronic writing today through a series of historical resonances. Early chapters examine the passage from orality to literacy as represented by the contrasting philosophical presences of Socrates and Plato; the changing nature of the library from the Alexandrian through Cassiodorus and the medieval monastic library and on to the hopes for today's "virtual" library; and the techniques of reading and reference [End Page 334] afforded by various technologies from the papyrus roll to the codex to the homepage. In later chapters O'Donnell explores the nature of teaching and of the university today and speculates on their future, as electronic technologies become more important to the curriculum. His specialist's knowledge of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages permits him to concentrate on this crucial period, which witnessed the shift from papyrus roll to codex. The historian of the book Roger Chartier has also argued that this transfer from roll to codex is the most appropriate comparison for the current move from printed book to electronic text. O'Donnell devotes relatively little space to discussing the latest avatar, electronic technology itself; he concentrates instead on establishing the historical parallels.
In short, what is usually lacking in discussions of electronic writing, an informed historical sense, is in ample supply in Avatars of the Word. O'Donnell is in general optimistic about the future of literate culture. His optimism seems to come precisely from his long historical view, which mitigates any feeling of panic over the current changes in the forms and practices of literacy. In this respect we might compare his cautious optimism with the less informed pessimism of Sven Birkerts in his Gutenberg Elegies (1994). O'Donnell is also sanguine about the role that electronic technology can play in education--not by replacing teachers, but rather by allowing instruction to become more individual.
On the other hand, the historical sophistication of Avatars of the Word both defines and limits its audience. Enthusiasts like John Perry Barlow count their readers in the hundreds of thousands, precisely because they offer a high-energy narrative of the future that does not trouble itself about the past. The leisurely and reflective pace of O'Donnell's book will seem luxurious to most of the new media world. O'Donnell says that his audience are "those who read books and use computers and wonder about the relationship" (ix). But the audience is perhaps narrower: those who, like the readers of this journal, are steeped in literate culture. Even within that group, O'Donnell is really speaking to those who are not intimidated by or disdainful of computer technology.
In addition to being a professor of...