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Reviews in Brief

Back to the Future
The Internet is just the latest communications revolution. By Phil Leggiere


AVATARS OF THE WORD: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
By James J. O'Donnell, Faculty.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
210 pp., $24.95.
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SOME of the most powerful interpreters of the revolutions of late 20th century communications technologies have, ironically, begun as very bookish literary scholars. Marshall McLuhan, the maverick critic turned media seer, who began as a scholar of Elizabethan poetry, is, of course, the most famous, but he's not alone. Also among the pioneers of contemporary media study are the Jesuit priest Walter Ong, author of the classic The Presence of the Word and, more recently, the historian of Victorian literature and author of Hypertext, George Landow, as well as professor of Renaissance literature turned cyber-critic Richard Lanham, author of The Electronic Word.
   Dr. James J. O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, a meditation on the fate of the scholarly life in the cyber-tech age, though far more modest in theoretical ambition than the works of those trailblazers, nonetheless belongs in their company. Described by O'Donnell, professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing at Penn, as "a book for people who read books and use computers and wonder what the two have to do with each other," Avatars is part historical essay, part rumination on one scholar's engagement with the Internet, and part speculation on the future of education.
   To truly understand the electronic communications revolution of our own era, O'Donnell believes, we must first uncover and reconsider two similarly tumultuous moments in our cultural history: the shift in Ancient Greece from an "oral" society shaped by oratory to a writing-based culture and the change in Early Medieval Christendom from scroll-based writing to bound codex books. O'Donnell argues that these examples show that the history of human communications is not a straightforward linear progression in which a new medium supersedes and destroys an older medium, but rather a dynamic pattern in which each new technological evolution provokes a complex cultural re-vision of what came before -- one involving both conservation and radical change.
   In two fascinating chapters -- one entitled "Hearing Socrates, Reading Plato," the other "The Persistence of the Old, The Pragmatics of the New" -- O'Donnell sketches out this intricate interplay. Socrates, he explains, "stands precisely at the boundary between the worlds of spoken and written discourse," and the Socratic Dialogues themselves dramatize the tension in Athens of the fifth century B.C. between the dominant medium of speech and the emergent new medium of writing. The famed "Phaedrus" dialogue is "a book about books, written about the subject of writing when the subject was still a novelty." Throughout his dialogues, Socrates grapples ambivalently with the new medium, awed by the power of writing to fix an image of meaning and memory, yet maintaining a devotion to the more personal, interactive communication of spoken dialogue.
   The epochal transformation in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. from scroll writing to the bound codex book prompted another such creative challenge, one which gave rise to such transitional intellectuals as St. Augustine, the scholar-monk Cassiodorus, and other lesser-known figures who created the first Christian libraries and pioneered the art of bibliography. Cassiodorus, in particular, a rather obscure figure in comparison to the intellectual star of his time, the philosopher Boethius, is viewed by O'Donnell as a singularly instructive figure for the present. A "Pragmatist of the New," Cassiodorus, though schooled in the older ways, struggled to adapt the classical traditions he loved to the new technologies, founding the first library of bound texts, developing an elaborate bibliographic record, and attempting (a little too far ahead of his time) to organize a monastic scribal culture. As a postmodern scholar looking back over 1,400 years, O' Donnell finds him "not a patron saint, but a colleague, a practitioner who innovated, failed and innovated again."
   These historical meditations, while absorbing in their own right, are not meant as ends in themselves. O' Donnell is determined to bring the distant past to bear on the technological revolutions facing scholarship today. In a series of short, provocative "thought experiments" that take up the latter half of the book, he attempts to revive the spirit of Cassiodorus. He explores the potential usefulness of networked computers in enabling scholars to accomplish the long-sought but seldom-accomplished goal of multidisciplinary collaboration between science and the humanities. He also examines how a new breed of electronic scholarly publication (such as his own E-journal, The Bryn Mawr Classical Review) can bypass the costly economics of bound print journals and the absurdly long intervals between scholarly writing and publishing, which O'Donnell believes have hamstrung communication and research.
   Finally, he argues cogently for the potential of the new media to break down boundaries between campuses and wider domains of the cultural, economic, and professional world, sketching in the process a new role for future professors -- as conduits in "networking," guiding students into wider global connections with colleagues in their areas of intellectual interest, "encouraging students wading through the deep waters of the information flood."
   Those in search of a sweeping manifesto of some coming cyber-utopia will be disappointed at the modest incrementalism of O'Donnell's approach. No cyber-punk, O'Donnell admits he's never "truly at hand save in a swamp of half-read books." Those looking for a crusty conservative jeremiad decrying the cultural unworthiness of the new media will find no ally, either. "A technology this powerful will not be refused, any more than writing or printing were in their day," he insists.
   However, those looking for an informed middle-ground perspective that balances skepticism about techno-hype with optimism about the future, will find O'Donnell a congenial spirit and engaging guide. A sixth-century monk might seem a tad unlikely as a role model for post-modern scholars, but, in pursuing that quietly audacious premise, O'Donnell has made a very original contribution to a very contemporary discourse.

Phil Leggiere, C'79, last wrote for the Gazette on Constitutional scholar and Internet enthusiast Lawrence Lessig, W'83.
   


BRIEFLY NOTED
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

LOST IN TRANSLATION
By Nicole Mones, CW'73.
New York: Delacorte Press, 1998. 384 pp., $23.95.
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   In her first novel, Mones writes about Alice Mannegan, an American woman living in Beijing, who yearns for acceptance but is constantly reminded of her Western otherness. She roams the darkened streets on her bicycle, looking for refuge and solace in bars and other places. In China, Alice seeks to escape from lost love, a domineering and racist politician father, and her own doubts and insecurities. It is only when her work as an interpreter leads her into the heart of this formidable country that she realizes the true motivations behind her passion for all things Chinese. Accompanied by an American archaeologist and two Chinese researchers, she travels deep into the desert regions of Mongolia, searching for the remains of the missing Peking Man and discovering true love in the process. Mones, who has traveled and worked extensively in China for more than two decades, got the idea for her novel when she translated for a joint U.S.-China archaeological expedition to China's northwest deserts. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest and is at work on a second novel.

 

SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS: Critical Essays
Edited by James Schiffer, C'73.
New York and London: Garland, 1998. 502 pp., $95.00.
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   This collection focuses exclusively on contemporary criticism of Shakespeare's sonnets. In addition to reprinting three influential essays from the past decade (among them essays by Dr. Peter Stallybrass, and Dr. Margreta deGrazia, both professors of English at Penn), the volume includes 16 original analyses by leading scholars in the field. Approaches range from the new historicism to the new bibliography, from formalism to feminism. In his introduction, Schiffer, the Elliott Professor and chair of the English department at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, offers a comprehensive survey of 400 years of criticism of these fascinating, enigmatic poems.

 

"HEAVY WEATHER AND HARD LUCK": Portsmouth Goes Whaling
By Kenneth R. Martin, Gr'65.
Portsmouth, N.H.: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1998. 212 pp., $30.00.
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   Although Portsmouth, N.H., has a long maritime heritage, few people are aware of the days when Portsmouth went whaling. This illustrated book, written by the former director of the Kendall Whaling Museum and author of several other whaling books, is devoted to the several 19th-century voyages of the Ports-mouth ships -- stories of storms and shipwrecks, captures by South Pacific natives, chance meetings at sea with other Portsmouth vessels, visits to exotic ports, and eventual financial ruin for the Portsmouth Whaling Company.

 

RESTRAINT-FREE CARE: Individualized Approaches for Frail Elders
By Neville E. Strumpf, Faculty, Joanne Patterson Robinson, G'94, Gr'95, Joan Stockman Wagner, GNu'82, and Lois K. Evans, Faculty.
New York: Springer Publishing Co., 1998. 168 pp., $32.95.
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   This book is for anyone seeking information on restraint-free nursing care. A philosophy of individualized care, which includes promoting comfort and safety, optimizing function and independence, and achieving the greatest possible quality of life, provides the framework for this guide. It contains specific strategies for understanding behavior, managing the risk of falls, and caring for the person who interferes with treatment. Strumpf is an associate professor in the School of Nursing, holds the Doris Schwartz Term Chair in Gerontological Nursing, and directs the Center for Gerontologic Nursing Science and the gerontological nurse practitioner program. Robinson is an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at Rutgers University. Wagner is a senior manager at The Whitman Group -- America's SeniorCare Specialist, in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. Evans holds the Viola MacInnes/Independence Chair in Nursing at the School of Nursing, where she is a professor and directs the school's academic nursing practices.

 

THE CRADLE OF KNOWLEDGE: Development of Perception in Infancy
By Philip J. Kellman, Gr'80, and Martha E. Arterberry.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998. 369 pp., $37.50.
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   Research on the development of perception over the past 25 years has produced discoveries at multiple levels. Kellman and Arterberry bring together the work in this field to produce a new picture of perception's origins. The emphasis is on perceptual knowledge -- how one comes to perceive the world; what information, processes, and mechanisms produce this knowledge; and how perceptual processes change over time. They examine early perception in various domains, such as object, space, motion, intermodal and speech perception, and attempt to discover the starting points and paths of development of each. Two families of views compete to describe how perception begins and develops: the traditional constructivist view, emphasizing the construction of perceptual reality through extended learning, and an ecological view, emphasizing the role of evolution in preparing infants to perceive. The authors argue that both innate foundations and learning contribute to perceptual development. Kellman is a professor of psychology and co-director of the Cognitive Science Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles. Arterberry is an associate professor of psychology at Gettysburg College.

 

THE BIBLE FROM ALEF TO TAV
By Penina V. Adelman, G'81.
Los Angeles: Torah Aura Productions, 1998. 185 pp., $14.95.
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   When her son Daniel was old enough to attend services, Adelman used to lean over and whisper a simultaneous translation of the weekly Torah portion in words he could understand. One day, Daniel asked, "Mommy, why can't I have my own book now?" Adelman knew there was a niche to be filled. Out of this conversation and her own storytelling background came The Bible from Alef to Tav, which takes young readers on a journey into the sacred stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The illustrated book integrates the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew alphabet for a fresh approach to introducing children to Bible stories. Adelman links each of her 22 stories, beginning with Genesis and ending with the book of Daniel, with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Creative activities are suggested at the end of each chapter and a guide for parents and teachers is included at the back of the book. A writer and social worker in Newton, Mass., Adelman lectures and performs throughout the United States and Israel. She is also the author of Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year (Biblio Press, 1986).

 

THE TRUTH OF UNCERTAINTY: Beyond Ideology in Science and Literature
By Edward L. Galligan, Gr'58.
Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1998. 208 pp., $29.95.
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   In the last chapter of Walden, Henry David Thoreau proclaims, "Any truth is better than make-believe." Galligan shares this conviction and in The Truth of Uncertainty, he argues that contemporary American critics should embrace literary truths with all of their ardent uncertainties rather than cling to the make-believe certainties of ideologies. Post-modern critics fail to ask the truth-seeker's essential question: What does the evidence prove? Instead, they trust the generalizations and slogans of ideologies to guide their interpretations. Attempting to be up-to-date and profound, these critics lose sight of the literature they are supposed to explore. Dealing with texts that American critics have largely ignored, the author moves from a rejection of criticism in the service of ideology to an affirmation of criticism in the service of truthfulness. Galligan is a professor emeritus of English at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and the author of The Comic Vision in Literature.

 

MUSEUMS AND AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL LIFE, 1876-1926
By Steven Conn, Gr'94.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 306 pp., $32.50.
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   During the last half of the 19th century, Americans built many of the country's most celebrated museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Chicago's Field Museum. In this study, Conn argues that Americans built these institutions with the confidence that they could collect, organize, and display the sum of the world's knowledge. Examining various kinds of museums, Conn discovers how museums gave definition to different bodies of knowledge and how they presented that knowledge -- the world in miniature -- to the visiting public. Conn's study includes familiar places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Academy of Natural Sciences, but he also draws attention to forgotten ones, like the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, once the repository for objects from many turn-of-the-century world's fairs. What emerges from Conn's analysis is that museums of all kinds shared a belief that knowledge resided in the objects themselves. Using what Conn has termed an "object-based epistemology," museums of the late 19th century were on the cutting edge of American intellectual life. By the first quarter of the 20th century, however, museums had largely been replaced by research-oriented universities as places where new knowledge was produced. According to Conn, not only did this mean a change in the way knowledge was conceived, but also, and perhaps more importantly, who would have access to it.
   

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