Who Was Marshall McLuhan? A Mosaic of Impressions Explored
by Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan
Edited by Frank Zingrone, Wayne Constantineau and Eric McLuhan
Comprehensivist Publications:Toronto, 1994. 311 pp. $24.95 US/$29.95 CDN
Companion software for IBM-compatible PCs requires Windows 3.1 or higher; $19.95 US + $5.00 S&H.
The advent of the Internet, and especially Net- and Web-based publishing, is bringing back to prominence the life, times and theoretical musings of Marshall McLuhan, a 1960's popular culture icon who convinced the world that "the medium is the message." Who Was Marshall McLuhan?, which (appropriately enough) labels itself a "Mosaic" approach to examining McLuhan's life and works, is eminently readable and a valuable research tool for anyone interested in Marshall McLuhan, the man.
What this book is NOT: a Cliff's Notes version to Understanding Media, The Medium is the Massage, or any other McLuhan work. While his books are, of course, prominently discussed, and the reader is invited to "see" the development of various texts through the eyes of collaborators and contemporaries of the author, in no way should Who Was Marshall McLuhan? be taken for a book that could be titled What Did Marshall McLuhan Write?
What this book IS: "a forceful collection of commentaries from over 70 colleagues and collaborators on how McLuhan affected their ways of thinking in the speed-blurred age of global communications," according to the publisher. While this is essentially correct regarding the content, the pace of the book is actually a pleasant meandering through anecdotes, theory, dialogue and reminiscences.
The authors, McLuhan's longtime colleague Barrington Nevitt and his brother Maurice McLuhan, center their efforts around asking the many contributors to answer two primary questions:
* What did you learn from Marshall McLuhan that you didn't already know?The answers and modes of response, as a reader might expect, are as varied as the contributors themselves. This list includes Benedictine Sister Bede (Sullivan), musician John Cage, environmentalist Ross Hall, journalist Peter Newman, cyberneticist John Rose, several members of McLuhan's family and staff, and a host of academics and literati.
* What anecdotes or personal experience demonstrate Marshall's humanity?
This kind of punctuated data collection would seem to lend itself naturally to the medium of hypertext, and indeed there is companion software for the book:Who Was Marshall McLuhan? For Your Computer. However, the software disappoints in precisely the same way Jay David Bolter's companion to Writing Space did a few years ago; it just doesn't do much.
The software is an abridged version of the book (six lists of content extracted from the print text), which purports to allow users to quickly read, search, and cut and paste hundreds of McLuhanesque excerpts and quotations. Indeed,the publishers claim that they "are sure many people would enjoy using some of McLuhan's one-liners in speeches, essays and other documents."
While this may in fact be true, the idea undercuts the excellence of the print text. It seems the software -- which also includes a screensaver mode of pithy McLuhanisms -- was produced for that consistently problematic reason: just because it could be done.
The stories in the book paint a powerful picture of one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, yet somehow the translation to screen and software doesn't quite work. It appears McLuhan was correct all along: the medium still is the message. ¤
Mick Doherty is a doctoral student in Rhetoric at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and Managing Editor for Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine.
Copyright © 1995 by Mick Doherty. All Rights Reserved.