Friday September 11 1998

For the virtual reader
Alberto Manguel

AVATARS OF THE WORD. From papyrus to cyberspace. By James J. O'Donnell. 216pp. Harvard University Press. Pounds 16.50. - 0 674 05545 4.

Some ten years ago, someone in the library must have carelessly pressed down on the Time Machine accelerator. All of a sudden, desks sprouted computers, phones expanded into faxes, dictionaries compressed into CD-ROMs. Never before, since the days of the first clay tablets, had the crafts of reading and writing undergone such a swift and overwhelming transformation. Up to then, changes had been gradual; the metamorphosis of scroll into codex happened over several reluctant centuries, the switch from manuscript to printed page took several entrepreneurial decades. Erasmus would probably have known how to use an eighteenth-century library, and would have marvelled only at the folly of producing so many books. A 1960s reader, however, magically transported to a computerized library of today, would barely recognize the place as a room for reading. The change has been so rapid and all-pervasive that it seems almost too obvious to point out.

And yet, as James J. O'Donnell suggests, in the midst of such chronic whirlwinds, a little reflection is called for. "Imagining our way forward to the people that we, or our children, may become", he says in the collection of random thoughts published as Avatars of the Word: From papyrus to cyberspace, "is an exercise we need to undertake if we are to live through these changes successfully and make good use of the chances the world offers us." A noble undertaking, indeed. But how are we to "imagine our way forward" in this unimaginably tangled, ever-changing cyber-jungle?

O'Donnell, a classicist by profession, author of the most complete study to date on the sixth-century bureaucrat Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, has chosen to be guided by the spirit of the age that ended with Cassiodorus' Institutiones, a word-processing handbook avant la lettre, wherein monks could learn all manner of scribal tips, from how to copy new texts with the least number of errors to how to avoid the virus of heretical ideas. (Cassiodorus even produced a spell-check for his monks, known as De orthographia.) "I assume here", writes O'Donnell, "that Latin late antiquity, the world from roughly 300 ce to 600 ce, offers a distinct and useful vantage point from which to consider the development of our ways of recording, using and transmitting the written word." Accordingly, O'Donnell has decided to look upon our changed library with the eyes of a modern Cassiodorus.

Such time travel is often, if not instructive, at least amusing. I myself played with the notion in last year's TLS Lecture at the Hay-on-Wye Festival (in fact, there are so many points in common between my lecture and the first chapter of O'Donnell's book that I'm glad that mine was published in the TLS, July 4, 1997, otherwise I might be accused of plagiarism). To see in the computer screen the ancient scroll, in the new digital books a heterogeneous monastic bound volume, in the Internet a humanist chain of correspondents, or in the competing IBM and Microsoft systems a tug-of-war between the upholders of the Reformation and those of the Counter-Reformation (as Umberto Eco proposed), can open curious and illuminating questions. O'Donnell's point of departure allows him to wander pleasantly through the strange realms of cyberspace.

In his study on Cassiodorus, O'Donnell attempted to debunk the romantic image of the Latin scholar as the saviour of pagan texts in a Christian world. On the contrary, Cassiodorus (O'Donnell says) believed that the study of classics could look after itself; what needed protection and funding were Christian textual studies. Political disruptions upset his plans for a Christian school in Rome, and, after a period of exile in Constantinople, he returned to Italy and founded a monastery on his family estate, built a library and set up his monks to copy books that would foster orthodox Christian Latin culture. In this Cassiodorus was not terribly successful, since in allowing his monks to work on books by the heretical Pelagius, for instance, he was at least in part responsible for the survival of Pelagius' unorthodox ideas well into the late Middle Ages.

It is with similar fumbling good intentions that O'Donnell sees himself imagining a way forward in the wilderness of the new libraries. The wilderness, however, is anything but clear-cut. The technology that so swiftly grew roots and creepers over the old shelves and writing-desks is one of constant change; feuding electronic systems, updated models of software, brand-new technical devices, drain a modern librarian's ingenuity and resources. On the other hand, whatever problems of storage and cataloguing the pre-1980s library may have presented, the codex itself remained more or less invariable. To imagine a library that suffers continuous alteration of its textual containers (remember when we could simply say "book"?) is a protean nightmare. And yet, this is what lies in store for us: California, according to the Washington Post of November 21, 1993 (quoted by O'Donnell), has stopped plans for building new university libraries and is focusing instead its attention and budget on virtual libraries with hardly any physical books in sight.

The mnemonic potential of such libraries is, of course, immense, since it depends on bytes, not cubic metres; its value, however, will depend on its ability to index and search with a proper degree of sophistication. "What memory can be asked to do changes as our cultural expectations change", notes O'Donnell, for whom the library, both ancient and modern, is a model for the society of its readers. "The fantasy that a library's users share defines the community to which they belong." Cassiodorus would have agreed. "What we mean by a comprehensive collection of books, for example, is exactly dependent on who we are."

But who are we now, readers of these virtual libraries? If nothing else, we are consumers of the word, not as Cassiodorus might have been (careful ruminators of the text unscrolling before us), but more like snackers on fast-food texts, happy to know that the World-Wide Web is indeed worldwide and that everything, from abstracts of conferences on Cassiodorus to the updated flight schedules between Rome and Constantinople, can be had at the drop of a finger. But in this "information waterfall", O'Donnell warns, "the virtual library that tells us everything and sweeps us off our feet with a cataract of ideas will not be highly prized". Indeed. "One of the most valuable functions of a traditional library has been not its inclusivity but its exclusivity, its discerning judgement that keeps out as many things as it keeps in." The "total" library, like Borges's Library of Babel, is useless, except for those who are willing to depend on the infinitesimal chance of finding their quarry within their lifetime.

"Avatar", in James O'Donnell's book, means a manifestation, "the form in which some abstract and powerful force takes palpable shape for human perception". This comes dangerously close to identifying the electronic media with a deity that deigns to show itself to the mortal reader. But there is no such reverence in O'Donnell's ruminations. He accepts the technological avatars of the word good-naturedly, with an occasional clever apercu, and offers no apocalyptic visions of the future, for good or for bad. He is not on the side of George Steiner, who believes that we are witnessing a Buecherdaemmerung, nor of Professor Chia-Wei Woo, of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who suspects that language itself may become an anachronism when "some postlinguistic means of communication renders the culture of the word obsolete".

O'Donnell/Cassiodorus is cautiously optimistic: "My own view is that we can expect no simple changes, that all changes will bring both costs and benefits, loss and gain, and that those of us fortunate enough to live in such exciting times will be put on our mettle to find ways to adapt technologies to our lives and our lives to technologies."

Alberto Manguel's most recent book is A History of Reading, 1996.