11.24.2010

MARSHALL MCLUHAN - Douglas Coupland


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.

11.07.2010

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH: THE TRUE STORY OF A THIEF, A DETECTIVE, AND A WORLD OF LITERARY OBSESSION - Allison Hoover Bartlett

Anyone who is a bibliophile (and let’s face it, most of us who review books are) will be able to relate to the subject matter of Allison Hoover Bartlett’s book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. As someone who collects books as much for their aesthetic appeal as for their content, I can understand the desire to own leather-bound volumes of Dickens’ works or first editions of modern classics. If I won the lottery, books are probably the first things I would buy – well maybe after more bookshelves, anyway. This book is the story of what happens when an appreciation for the fine works of literature turns into an obsession.
Hoover Bartlett was drawn into the world of literary antiquity by chance when she agreed to take responsibility for returning a very old, and rare book on botany to a college library from whence it was accidentally purloined by the late sister of a friend. She becomes interested in discovering the provenance and value of the book and proceeds to take it to a rare book dealer and to have passages translated from the German by a friend. As she learns more about the book, she becomes curious to discover how such a rare and valuable book could go missing from an educational institution without any seeming attempts being made to recover the missing item. When she contacts the library she discovers that not only are they not actively searching for the volume, but they have no records of it ever having belonged to the library in the first place.
So begins a foray into the world of literary theft – a world, Hoover Bartlett is soon to discover, that is much larger than she ever imagined. As she begins to contact rare book sellers and collect stories of literary theft, she comes across John Gilkey, a notorious thief who had stolen books from many different rare book dealers in the United States using a variety of scams involving bad cheques and stolen credit card numbers. Gilkey, she discovers, steals not for profit, but out of a sense of entitlement and a desire to own books that he sees as symbols of the cultured and learned. Hoover Bartlett subsequently begins interviewing Gilkey during one of his incarcerations and learns how he carried out some of his scams, accompanies him to a bookstore (an uncomfortable experience since he had previously stolen from that store and the owner recognized him), and visits his mother and sisters.
Hoover Bartlett approaches her newfound interest as any good collector does, and interweaves Gilkey’s story with little anecdotes about other book collectors and thieves throughout history that she learns from the rare book dealers she comes to know quite well. The character of Gilkey isn’t very likeable, though he probably isn’t meant to be. The author doesn’t share much of herself with the reader aside from brief references to books she loves and seems increasingly uncomfortable with her research subject. Any booklover will find this book to be an interesting read. Overall it is a charming light read to pass an afternoon with, and an introduction not only to the world of book theft, but also to the world of rare book collecting.

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