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Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace

James J. O'Donnell

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ISBN 10: 0674055454 / ISBN 13: 9780674055452
Published by Harvard University Press, 1998
Used Condition: Good
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Former Library book. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside. Bookseller Inventory # GRP11146712

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to ...

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication Date: 1998

Book Condition:Good

About this title


The written word has been a central bearer of culture since antiquity. But its position is now being challenged by the powerful media of electronic communication. In this penetrating and witty book James O'Donnell takes a reading on the promise and the threat of electronic technology for our literate future.

In Avatars of the Word O'Donnell reinterprets today's communication revolution through a series of refracted comparisons with earlier revolutionary periods: the transition from oral to written culture, from the papyrus scroll to the codex, from copied manuscript to print. His engaging portrayals of these analogous epochal moments suggest that our steps into cyberspace are not as radical as we might think. Observing how technologies of the word have affected the shaping of culture in the past, and how technological transformation has been managed, we regain models that can help us navigate the electronic transformation now underway. Concluding with a focus on the need to rethink the modern university, O'Donnell specifically addresses learning and teaching in the humanities, proposing ways to seek the greatest benefit from electronic technologies while steering clear of their potential pitfalls.


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

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