Cultures of the Book

Classical Studies 158

Fall 1997: Wednesday, 2-5 p.m.

Meets: Hill College House Library

"I am not willing that this discussion should close without mention of the value of a true teacher. Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins [president, Williams College, 1836-72] on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him." --James A. Garfield

The "book" is a human-made artifact, a bearer of cultural significance. This seminar explores ways in which the material forms of the "book", from antiquity to the present, shape the cultures of those who use them. The educational and cultural limitations of the instructor will mean that the main line of discussion will follow "western" developments, but students with competences that run beyond the familiar will be encouraged to pursue those interests and report on comparative developments to the seminar as a whole.

There will be common readings and discussion following a detailed schedule. Each seminar participant will contribute actively to discussion in class and on the e-mail list. Instructor: James J. O'Donnell,

The seminar will take a comparative, historical perspective on "the book" in order to facilitate intelligent and perceptive appreciation of the cultural transformations borne by electronic technology in our time.

Preliminary requirement: by 10 p.m., Sunday 7 September, send to the instructor a message that (1) summarizes your academic background and interests (major, main subjects of interest), (2) outlines your interest in this course (why are you here?), and (3) lists your goals for this course.

Course requirements: (1) full participation in discussion, including on-line discussion -- "wallowing" in it would be a better term; (2) identification of a particular focus for your own work -- one of the themes above or something comparable, or else a historical/cultural site/period, and development of that interest through the common discussion; (3) creation of a WWW presentation of the results of your work with first version posted/published by 5 p.m. Sunday 16 November 1997 and final version by 5 p.m. Thursday 11 December 1997. Your presentations will appear on this web site.

Grading: You will be marked weekly on a scale of 1-3, where 1 is fully responsive and participatory, 2 is present but not really engaged, and 3 is absent/disengaged. This number will count for 1/3 of your grade. The other 2/3 will be assigned based on the final state of the WWW presentation you make for the course, with primary attention to the quality of intellectual engagement and analysis demonstrated by that presentation and some (but lesser) attention to question of esthetics.

NO PAPER! I recognize that you will read paper books and I endure the fact that you may choose to take notes on paper. However, none of your transactions with the instructor in this course may be made using paper.

Readings: There will be numerous short readings assigned as we go along, but the core of your reading effort will go into five books (they have been ordered through the University bookstore). These will be read and discussed in detail on multiple levels during the course of the seminar. (1) Each is a good book, with something to say and an interesting way of saying it. (2) Together they represent a variety of ways of writing good books from ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and modern times. (3) Each one in some way or another is about books and how they are written and read. (4) Each one experiments in a different way with the form and content of literature and illustrates aspects of book culture that are not always obvious at first glance.

The books are:

Albert Manguel, A History of Reading is not so much a linear history as a series of historical essays on many of the exotic and normal ways people have learned to use books over time

Plato's Phaedrus (supplemented by the Seventh Letter) takes us to the dawn of the age of the written word

Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy mixes philosophy and poetry, autobiography and fiction, and became the biggest secular best-seller of the middle ages

Erasmus's Praise of Folly comes from an age jaded and cynical about people who use books to propagate their ideas and makes fun of them.

Nabokov's Pale Fire is an experiment in novel-writing -- who is the author of the index?

Additional Required Reading:

The New Hacker's Dictionary

Further Reading: To navigate some bibliographical materials following the story line of "western civilization", click on these entries:

Finally, all students will be required to learn the ways of the World-Wide Web and draw on it for our common discussions.