Review: Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace by James J. O'Donnell Print

foreedge(Georgia Review Spring 1999 Volume 53, Number 1)

It is tempting to think as scholar James O’Donnell has that the glacial shift from hand-copying manuscripts to the printing press must prefigure the present era’s change from book to computer. In this view St. Jerome, the Latin monk who translated, copied and preserved Christian texts, is a man for all seasons. Almost single-handedly, he disseminated Christianity to the Mediterranean world by mastering the technology of the word. In our age online scholars and libraries may be doing likewise by bringing the whole of our culture to every Internet browser on earth.

Whither today’s online scholar is an engaging idea which O’Donnell meanders through, querying his profession about the scope and direction of electronic literacy. As a classical studies professor and vice provost of computing and information systems at the University of Pennsylvania, it appears that O’Donnell has past and present covered. In a sense he does. His enthusiasm for the medieval age is exemplary, and he grasps the duties of scholarship no matter the era or the technological advance.

But O’Donnell lacks a coherent sense of the present, a huge gap in a book heavily devoted to computers. His musings on high culture meeting Cyberspace are long-winded and cryptic or else overstated. Unlike Marshall McLuhan, O’Donnell’s clarity about the book culture of past ages is oceans away from a similar insight into hypertextuality.

O’Donnell defines "avatar" as a "manifestation," or "the form in which some abstract and powerful force takes palpable shape for human perception." Alas, his subsequent explanations aren’t any sharper. Too often the simplest questions go unanswered: Are the avatars earlier technologies of the word—hieroglyph, codex, movable type—or the users themselves? Was St. Augustine, O’Donnell’s specialty, an avatar of the word? Did classical authors like him or St. Jerome write about new or changing word systems in their midst? Perhaps the ancients, feral with God, had no conception of themselves as avatars. O’Donnell doesn’t tell us.

St. Augustine, according to the author, has been reduced by pop culture into caricature. He asserts that Augustine’s five million words, if studied more widely, would yield less legend, more individual. Best of all, the simplified St. Augustine would evaporate once the saint’s digitally mastered oeuvre was accessible to all. But haven’t we heard this before? Paperback books will encourage reading; higher gas prices will lessen consumption. Post hocs, I’m afraid. Just because one views St. Augustine’s output on multiple screens, plus consults other Augustinians online simultaneously, makes him neither trendier nor less obscure.

In the chapter "From the Codex Page to the Homepage," O’Donnell shows quite well how the medieval scholar worked collaboratively, developing in monasteries a collegiality which today’s academics envy. But as pithy as this chapter begins, it loses its vim once the author falls into drowsy speculation about scholars now—perhaps, maybe, sort of—losing their isolation. Surely there is some evidence, even anecdotal, for an online journal editor like O’Donnell to cite.

The author’s concerns for the university are compelling but a bit high-pitched. "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?" It sounds dramatic but what the past has taught us is that we do adapt, albeit unpredictably and clumsily. Contrary to O’Donnell’s wishes, we don’t think it through enough. In the end, as he says, "we lose and we gain." What exactly we’re losing and gaining, I’m still not sure.

What is perhaps worse than a scholarly book which poorly represents itself, is poorly written and poorly reasoned, is a scholarly book that has so little scholarship in it, that wanders over the terrain of word-technologies without offering up what others in their eras had to say.