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Avatars of the Word

Avatars of the Word

From Papyrus to Cyberspace

James J. O'Donnell

ISBN 9780674001947

Publication date: 05/05/2000

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.


  • 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


  • James J. O'Donnell brings to his searching meditation on the life of the mind in cyberspace a unique combination of perspectives. He is Provost at Georgetown University.

Book Details

  • 228 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press