Monday, March 7, 2011

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!

Oh, man, this was super fun. It caught me off guard that Douglas Coupland was writing a biography -- but it was a biography only he could write. I've dug through other biographies about McLuhan before, but never did I read one that made me understand his career path so clearly -- I expect because this book is so short and focused.

I've had a McLuhan obsession for a long time, even though I've found his books so difficult to wade through. I used to think it was me, but now I see it was Marshall. He just didn't care that people didn't follow him. He just went with the vibe of his thoughts. Building the bridge was the reader's problem. Coupland's book really shows how most of his writing was built off of lectures... which made me feel great, since that's how most of my writing is built. I guess it worked for Aristotle, too. Did you know that all we have left of Aristotle's work is his lecture notes? The books themselves were all burned. Anyway...

I recently got more focused on McLuhan than I ever had been. I had made some corny joke at a party at a neighbor's house, "The Medium is the Mysoginist", I think. (It's a problematic joke. No one ever reads "The Medium is the Massage," so no one gets it.) And the person I'm talking to is the father of the host, and says, "Oh, you know the works of Marshall McLuhan?" and I explained that in my line of work, he comes up a lot. And he says, "Judy and I were good friends with Marshall, when we were younger." It's worth mentioning here that Vince and Judy are extremely venerable, I'm not sure how old they are exactly, but they speak nostalgically about WWI, and visiting the 1935 World's Fair after college, etc. Anyway, I always like talking to them because they are so very interesting and wise. A few months later, I saw them again, and they said, "We're cleaning up our library... would you care to have our collection of McLuhan books?" and... yes... yes, I would. They were kind enough to bring them over, and I was kind of shocked to find that several were inscribed. The gem of the collection, I think, is Understanding Media, in which he wrote, "People will forgive you if you're wrong, but they'll never forgive you if you're right. For Vince and Judy, in affectionate recall of many extended conversations and our mutual investigation of many media. Marshall."

So... I'd tried to read this book before, but always got stymied. But Coupland's biography, combined with the aura of a signed book, have given me new steam -- Coupland has made me understand Marshall much better, and I get less stumped as I read. It is shocking how far ahead of his time he is... he is ahead of us still.

I can see the handwriting of both Vince and Judy throughout the book, annotating passages, and leaving thoughtful notes. In my boldness, I decided I would annotate, too, on the off chance that the world remembers me a little while, and perhaps someone will enjoy seeing a book with such an odd lineage.

Oh! After they gave me the books, Judy says... "Hmm... we have some other stuff Marshall gave us... like his old Tom Lehrer records. Would you want those?"

Yes... yes, I would.

Anyway, I highly recommend Coupland's eccentric biography of good old eccentric Marshall.

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