CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 17 . . . . April 26, 2002
The "Quest Library," a biographical series produced by XYZ Publishing, has, over the past several years, offered a particularly effective and engaging set of studies of Canadians who have made significant contributions across a wide range of activities, from the sciences to the arts. Each of the books in the series has followed a similar format, offering a detailed picture of the life and character of the individual concerned and, at the same time, an insight into the vocation or profession in which the individual made a contribution, and into the larger national and international backdrop against which the activities and life of the individual played. The results have, for the most part, been very effective: spurring interest in an individual, and through that, fostering a better understanding of significant events and trends in the life of our country and the larger world. In the main, the studies have been written in a fashion that allows easy access on the part of senior years students, and a level of interest and sophistication that will appeal as well to the general adult reader.
Unfortunately, Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy proves somewhat less successful in meeting these anticipated series characteristics. In part, this may be a result of the way in which the author approached the subject; but it is possible, too, that McLuhan simply offers too complex and abstruse a topic for effective translation to a brief biographical synopsis. His publications, and most significantly The Gutenberg Galaxy(1962), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), did and to an extent still do, as the author notes, receive a dramatically polarized reception. Fans regard him as the most significant prophet and interpreter of the new age of information; critics accuse him of everything from abstruseness to wild speculation. The years since his original publications have seen his concepts imbedded (if not entirely understood beyond clich‚) within contemporary language: the ideas in particular of the medium being the message, and of our movement toward becoming a "global village." In tracking the reception of McLuhan's ideas, the author has done an effective job of showing the inherently conservative nature of the university settings in which McLuhan found himself: at Wisconsin, St Louis, Assumption, St Michael's at the University of Toronto, and most importantly, his pioneering Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. Media and related studies along with the invasion of post-modernism have since accorded McLuhan's thinking a place of comparative respect within the academic setting; but a full understanding of its nature and implications clearly require more than any general overview can realistically provide. The author has attempted with some success to explain aspects of McLuhan's message ('hot' and 'cool' media, for example), but has not really been able to leave the reader with a comprehensive and coherent synopsis (if such is in fact possible).
A good job is done in presenting McLuhan the man, from his somewhat troubled childhood in Winnipeg, to his own ambivalent experiences as the father of a large family. We are given in some detail the major trials of his life, most importantly his record-making operation for a brain tumor, from which he never fully recovered. We are provided as well with some solid insights into his character and into the combination of superstition and self-assurance that allowed him to buffer the slings and arrows that his uttering inevitably prompted.
The author, a poet and journalist herself, has attempted to have her own medium be the message; and with mixed success attempts to use a collage-like text and strange idiom-laced passages to convey something of the sense of McLuhan's new worldview. The collage approach works reasonably well; some comprehensible mosaic emerges from the parts. The attempts at idiomatic expression, in both simulated conversation and editorial neologisms, are, on the other hand, rather off-putting and distracting. Most unfortunately, the book on the whole in terms of content and style - requires a level of background beyond that typical of a senior years student. It would not lend itself to easy use at that level and will probably find its audience in the reasonably well-read undergraduate and adult sector. It does make a useful contribution, most particularly in presenting a picture of McLuhan the man; but its contribution to an introductory understanding of his message is somewhat less successful.
Alexander Gregor is a professor of higher education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.