Books On Books

Avatars of the Word: From papyrus to cyberspace

By James J. O'Donnell

Harvard University Press

210 pp., $24.95

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

By Anne Fadiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

164 pp., $16

The Nature of the Book: Print and knowledge in the making

By Adrian Johns

University of Chicago

707 pp., $40

Since Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "the medium is the message," there's been an alarming tendency to assume that technology will inevitably transform the way human beings think, feel, and treat one another.

Understandably alarmed at the prospect of an ever-more shallow and sensation-hungry culture, many serious-minded people have rallied to the cause of books and reading.

Meanwhile, gung-ho futurists sing praises of the dawning age of instantaneous global communication, which, they assure us, will bring peace, freedom, and prosperity to all.

With some reservations, we might classify James J. O'Donnell as a member of the futurist camp. In Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, O'Donnell looks enthusiastically at the latest developments in information technology in the long history of the written word.

In addition to the most obvious benefit of quick access to vast stores of information, O'Donnell commends the ability to allow collaborative dialogues and experiments, and to introduce spontaneity, playfulness, and informality to scholarly, scientific, and educational enterprises.

But he is not entirely blind to some of its possible negative impacts on culture. "The electronic environment has the power to defeat dignification: Can we bear the results?" he asks. What if "the advance of science" were "overtaken by the advance of play" and an "economy of amusement" were to supplant "the economy of material sustenance"?

O'Donnell finds precedents for our current transition in the late classical/early medieval world, when codex-style books were replacing scrolls, and in the Renaissance, when written manuscripts were giving way to printed texts. In both instances, the written word survived, but a new means of transmission changed the way it was received.

Readers with more traditional tastes will prefer Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. In these essays, culled from her column in Civilization magazine, Fadiman offers homespun reflections on her own experiences as a reader.

We learn of the time she and her husband decided to take the ultimate step by merging their two separate libraries. "George is a lumper. I am a splitter." His casual assortment of his books did not easily mesh with her more strictly organized approach.

Elsewhere, Fadiman confesses that while many bibliophiles keep their cherished possessions in mint condition, she and her family show their love of books by marking them up with comments and dog-earing pages.

The chief flaw here is the author's tendency to lapse into a precious, self-satisfied tone. Fadiman writes of growing up in a book-loving household as if hers were the only family to deplore faulty grammar or shout out answers to questions while watching "G.E. College Bowl" on television.

Although not what most people would consider a light read, Adrian Johns's scholarly tome The Nature of the Book offers a detailed, engrossing, and genuinely eye-opening account of the formative stages of the print culture we now take for granted.

Johns, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, argues that we are wrong to assume that technology not only made printed matter widely available and affordable, but also ensured an unprecedented level of fixity, stability, and reliability in the texts.

Transporting us back to the early days of print culture in 17th-century England and Europe, Johns examines the world of printers, booksellers, authors, and scientists of the fledgling Royal Society. His fascinating chapter on the 17th-century concepts of the complex physical and spiritual process of reading is alone worth the price of admission!

These intriguing stories show what a hard time authors had ensuring that printed editions of their works were accurate and consistent. Some scientists, like the 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, went so far as to establish their own printing presses in order to certify the authenticity of their works. Plagiarism, piracy, and shoddy inaccuracy were among the many problems that beset print culture.

"Printed texts were not intrinsically trustworthy," Johns argues. "When they were in fact trusted, it was only as a result of hard work." Human beings, then as now, could not sit back and assume a new technology by itself would solve problems. From the professional standards of the craftsmen's guilds to a program of government licensing, people constructed means to attain their desired goals. "Fixity depended on civility," Johns writes. This is scholarship at its best, illuminating forgotten aspects of the past to remind us we cannot rely on technology to give us the future we need.

* Merle Rubin reviews books regular-ly for the Monitor.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.