Big Ideas:
Marshall McLuhan

How supremely piquant it was to read, in one swallow, Douglas Coupland’s book, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (the subtitle comes from a line spoken by McLuhan himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), on the day when Borders’ bankruptcy, long anticipated, was finally announced. Way back when Borders was taking off, expanding nationally, buying WaldenBooks, hadn’t anybody read The Gutenberg Galaxy?

I’m not going to pretend that I read it, not the whole thing. Like everyone else, I thought, at the time, that Marshall McLuhan was hostile to the high culture of the West, and that he relished its immolation in staticky, low-resolution images of bad television. I thought that he welcomed the End of Civilization As We Knew It. I also thought that he was impossible to read. I regarded McLuhan as a mad Canadian, driven by the boredom of the prairies to predict a human cataclysm. But I sensed that he was right about books, somehow or other.

The Enlightenment dream of mass readerships turns out not to have been psychologically acute. For most people, reading is an escapist, not an instructive pastime. Few people read to learn if they’re not required to do so. The vast run of retail history books, for example, is hardly more scholarly than the romance fiction and knitting manuals that “history buffs” look down their noses at on their wives’ and girlfriends’ nightstands; weighty tomes as they may be, the books simply massage pre-existing accumulations of facts relating to this or that war. Reading, ironically, is not a visual activity; it puts our ocular apparatus to an unintended use. (Nothing is more natural than unintended uses.) Most people would rather sit back and watch something. For a century and a half or so, beginning in 1800, a combination of civic virtue — democracies have been thought to depend upon literate electorates —and the absence of alternative entertainments conspired to create the illusion of a vast reading public. Well, there may actually have been a vast reading public, for a while. But it was not a willing one, and when technology advanced after World War II, and authority retreated, books were replaced by screens.

Coupland’s biography, of course, is merely an extended essay, blending stories from McLuhan’s life with glancing meditations on the vastness of Canada, academic pettifoggery, and the Internet — something that McLuhan would have loved to hate, according to the author. This is the kind of book that we like to read now: brisk, knowing, and personal. Of course a biography ought to be personal, you might say, but I mean personal with respect to the writer, who is something of a cultural groundbreaker himself. (Coupland coined the term “Generation X.”)  It will not replace the serious studies by Marchand and Gordon that are mentioned at the outset (but identified only in the notes), but who would read those now save students of intellectual history? You Know Nothing of My Work! links the mad scientist to the mad world that he foresaw. If it fails to deliver a plausible account of the transformation of a Renaissance scholar into a media guru for whom that very term had to be invented, it does a fine job of suggesting why nobody — not McLuhan, not the businessmen who retained him, not even Pierre Trudeau — was able to mine any practical advantage from his work. If McLuhan sensed the outlines of a coming era, he was nevertheless unable to speed the coming. Much of the time, he comes across as a more successful John Forbes Nash, possessed of a beautiful mind that was better attuned to perceptible patterns.

At the end of the book, Coupland tells us that he was inspired to write it by the history of his own Canadian family, and he evokes the life of his cement-salesman grandfather in a passage that’s worthy of Alice Munro.

What thoughts would fill the mind of Arthur Lemuel Campbell? Did he hate the past? Did he want to drive into the future, and, if so, where did he perceive the future as being — to the west? To the east? Above his head? All that driving and all that flatness, all thoses Sundays and rooming house meals with pursed lips and ham hock dinners with creamed corn and the fear of God. Our Father, who are in heaven. And always the family left behind — High River; Regina; Edmonton; Swift Current — family gone crazy, family gone religious, family dying young. Don’t complain and don’t explain. Cut your losses. Cut your family before they cut you. Be weak. Be crazy. Be insane. Be humble. Bow before God. Pretend you’re something you’re not. Rise above your station and pay the price. Keep you opinions to yourself. Die alone, even when surrounded by others. You will be judged. There will never be peace. There will never be sanctuary, because there will always be something lurking on the other side of the horizon that will be a threat to you. Pay cash. Credit is the devil.


Of all the bookstores that I’ve ever visited, Borders was easily the most decadent, the most intoxicated by the idea that books are precious objects that radiate their contents in glimmering auras; there can’t be any need to read books if you’re surrounded by so many excellent titles. (The only thing missing was a line of fragrances named after beloved classics and redolent of the freshest sawdust.) I detected nothing cynical about this projection; the good people at Borders were good people. But there were far too many of them. A proper bookshop ought to be a bit creaky, inconvenient, and forbidding — just a bit. Borders was entirely too dreamy.