I’m a huge fan of Douglas Coupland’s writing, and as a communications student, I’ve heard the name “Marshall McLuhan” more times in the past few years that I can count. So this book was doubly appealing. Despite my passing familiarity with Marshall McLuhan, as I sat down to read this book, I realized that I didn’t actually know very much about the man who is credited with beginning the academic study of communication and the media
He is often equated with two of his more widely-known concepts. The first is his famous quote, “the medium is the message,” meaning that the technology that is used to communicate a message is more important than the message being conveyed. His second famous concept is the idea of the global village – technology making instantaneous communication with people in many other parts of the world possible, creating a global community not governed by geographical distance. However, these two concepts alone are only two of a wide range of ideas he pumped into the world over the course of his life.
Because he was the pioneer of media criticism, he is often equated with technological advancement, which is a misconception. Though he did examine media and technological development it was from a critical perspective. McLuhan’s original area of study was 16th century literature, and his study of the history of human communication is the basis from which he was able to recognize the patterns of communication and technological impact on society that he used to forsee the future of modern media.
That he was able to, in many ways, predict the future of media did not mean that he approved of where it was going. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Coupland’s biography draws a picture of an earnest scholar, in some ways almost a fuddy-duddy. He converted to Catholicism at a relatively young age and was completely engrossed in his research. He had a voracious appetite for the written word and astounding mental faculties that allowed him to consume vast quantities of reading materials and digest the contents very quickly, a skill that served him well in his first teaching job, as he had to teach subjects outside his own area of expertise and had such a heavy workload that he often read the lesson material directly before entering class to teach it.
Coupland’s portrait shows both the brilliance and eccentricities that added up to McLuhan’s legend. His obvious fascination with his subject matter lends itself to an engaging biography that does not become dull or tedious. He balances out exploration of McLuhan the man with McLuhan the great mind to give the reader an excellent view into his life and work simultaneously. I found it to be very readable and yet informative.
I hope that this book will be used as a resource for future communications students so that they can learn a bit more about McLuhan than I did. Had I read this before entering into my studies, I think I would have found reading his work to be more enjoyable. It is part of the Extraordinary Canadians series, which includes biographies of many of Canada’s most notorious and celebrated personalities, written by some of Canada’s best writers. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in communications, McLuhan, historic Canadians or who simply loves Coupland’s writing. It will not disappoint on any of these counts.