The McLuhan Way


This is an article from the online version of a regional quarterly print publication titled “Watershed,” which reflects on life in the Northumberland and Prince Edward Counties and the Bay of Quinte Region, east of Toronto, the beautifully-published version of which was brought to our attention by Andrew McLuhan who lives in Picton in Prince Edward County.

By Conrad Beaubien

Boxes of uncatalogued books, collected over Marshall McLuhan’s lifetime of study and reflection, become the medium through which a grandfather relays his message to his grandson

AT THE BOTTOM OF WILD OAK LANE IN PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY, is a mailbox that sits on a well-wintered cedar pole. It’s an everyday rural-style mailbox, painted in black enamel with a civic address cleanly set in white, Times New Roman font. Over time, the mailbox has become a symbol of communication, a basic need of humankind. Today, this particular mailbox serves as a visual reminder of the impact of communication on the world and the lifetime work of one individual – Herbert Marshall McLuhan.

A gravelled driveway rises from the main road, tunnels through shadows of older sugar maple trees, past a single storey, white frame house and then leads to a set of 19th century farm buildings. Within one of these buildings is a renovated space where Andrew McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s grandson, is seated at a sturdy wooden refectory table. It is here where Andrew, in 2009, catalogued the working library of his grandfather. The extensive library, inherited by Andrew’s father, had been stored here after Marshall McLuhan’s death in 1980. The inner change precipitated by that one event fuels Andrew’s efforts today.

Born in Edmonton, Marshall McLuhan is considered one of the leading communication theorists in the modern world. He studied how media, in all its forms, has the power to transform human consciousness, how communication tools affect our habits and our minds, and shapes our thoughts in sociology, art, science or religion. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, published in 1962, was the first of McLuhan’s works to reflect on the transfer of ideas in society. In particular, Galaxy spoke to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century and how it spun the dial on the spread of knowledge.

Cataloguing McLuhan’s book collection was a challenge for Andrew. “Up until that point, I didn’t fully understand the true meaning of the pioneering work of my grandfather,” Andrew offers. “I had no cataloguing experience and was guided by instinct.” He set up a spread sheet and began the work. “The volumes had been sitting in random-sized cardboard boxes for years. They were in a range of condition – some with torn dust jackets and fragile bindings – dog-eared titles and signed first editions among the brand new. Others had excerpts from lectures: a note on Abbey Hoffman here, a letter to Marshall from Ezra Pound there,” he lists. “I would absorb Marshall’s abbreviated codes through osmosis. It became clear that if a book was in the boxes, it meant something to him and why he kept it,” Andrew points out.

“Marshall McLuhan’s coining of the phrase ‘the medium is the message’, his prediction of the coming of the internet and the idea of the global village seemed to be well understood, but I wasn’t a schooled intellectual like my dad or my grandfather,” Andrew discusses. He moves from his upright chair to a nearby wall where he takes down a small, hand-soldered copper frame. Under the glass is a strip of birch bark. The sepia-hued inner skin of the bark has a tight, handwritten notation in crisp black ink: Marshall McLuhan July 5 1931. “At the end of his first year of engineering at the University of Manitoba, he worked on a survey crew in northern Manitoba, but didn’t return to engineering. He switched his area of study to English literature and philosophy. He said in later quotes that he began to ‘read himself into literature’…investigation was for him,” Andrew says. “He used that piece of bark as a bookmark. I found it between some pages in the process of my own discovery,” he furthers…
Read the rest here

Eric McLuhan’s, now Andrew’s Working Scriptorium

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