What Will Become of Readers?

A review by Michael A. Keller*

Science Magazine, v. 283, no. 5408, 12 March 1999, p. 1649

Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace.
James J. O'Donnell
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1998. 224 pp.
$24.95. ISBN 0-674-05545-4.

So many ideas intersect in this compact book that one hardly knows which to select for comment. At the University of Pennsylvania, James O'Donnell is both professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing. From the many strands of his academic life he has woven a consideration of the "connections among speaking, writing and reading today." Avatars of the Word is, however, about ever so much more than those connections. The implications and importance of the book's contents are worth serious contemplation by all intellectuals--especially those who contribute to and draw from peer-reviewed scientific discourse. The threads of Avatars lead from Socrates and Plato; through the Alexandria and other libraries, codices, Augustine, Cassiodorus, and both old and new liberal arts; to the virtual library, hyperlinking, distance education (and other threatening attributes of the 21st-century university), and the life of the mind in cyberspace.

The term avatar is found in tens of thousands of items on the World Wide Web. The word is generally used in information technology with the same meaning that O'Donnell intends, "in the sense of 'manifestation'--the form in which some abstract and powerful force takes palpable shape for human perception." The Oxford English Dictionary reports that the word entered English from Sanskrit for "the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form," and had assumed the meaning used by O'Donnell by 1850. What a powerful idea the word conveys in this era of so many accessible means of global communication.

To supplement the book, O'Donnell provides its own avatar at avatars and references numerous other URLs. The book itself is incomplete without reference to many of these resources and their hyperlinks. And so it becomes a model of its own main theme.

O'Donnell does not lead one through the histories of writing, literacy, or communication. Readers are thereby spared the usual recitation of the historiography of prominent notions that mark many academic books. Many readers of Science, however, consequently may miss discovering that the ancillary sciences of history (among them epigraphy, paleography, and diplomatics) are in fact scientific and that many of the objects studied in such fields have transmitted the ideas and fundamental concepts of science itself from early antiquity to the present day. Although works such as Felix Reichmann's Sources of Western Literacy: the Middle Eastern Civilizations (1) are also beyond the scope of O'Donnell's bibliography, they certainly complement the ones cited in the brief but excellent bibliographic notes at the end of the book.

These days scientists and other scholars, librarians and other information professionals, and policymakers of assorted stripes are investing time, energy, and money to promote the useful arts and sciences. Among the numerous tasks and processes they support are modes of communication; the work of librarians, archivists, and museum curators; and the component duties of authors, editors, and publishers. O'Donnell interweaves his examination of these topics with excursions. He considers the instability of text in cyberspace and its implications; nonlinear reading focused on the organization and management of knowledge (although he does not deal with collaborative work in the creation of scholarly reports and records); the distribution of scholarly information through the Web and the challenge of such dissemination to intellectual property laws; and the force of personalities in the teaching process and, by implication, in the research process. The cautious (Sven Birkerts) as well as the reactionary or superficial (Allan Bloom, Charles Sykes, Roger Kimball, Page Smith, Dinesh D'Souza, and David Samrosch) are dispatched with grace in order to comment critically and, in my view, accurately on the state and the possibilities of the university (including the possibilities affected by information technology).

Elsewhere O'Donnell has remarked, "Universities are triumphant testimony that technologies rarely supplant one another" (2). This notion is reflected in the book and is fodder for rich debates, especially from the perspectives of scientists, technologists, and medical researchers. I predict that when, after a century, others look back at this period of transition, our era will be recognized for the amazing transformation of scholarly communication that occurred because of networks of computers and the prescient thinking and actions of a few editors and publishers. Despite its context deep in the humanities, O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word is a book for those pondering the nature of communication--in research, in teaching, and in life.


1. F. Reichmann, Sources of Western Literacy: the Middle Eastern Civilizations (Greenwood, Westport, CT, 1980).

2. J. J. O'Donnell, Chron. Higher Educ. 44, B7 (13 Feb. 1998).

The author is university librarian, director of Academic Information Resources, and publisher, HighWire Press, Stanford University, 245 Green Library, Stanford, CA 94305-6004, USA. E-mail:

Volume 283, Number 5408 Issue of 12 Mar 1999, p 1649 İ1999 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Copyright İ 1999 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.