Read between the lines

Marshall McLuhan’s insightful catchphrases are food for thought, but if you strip out the context they read like literary fast food, says Quentin Newark

In an era when reading is unfashionable (because it involves those unsexy things; the devotion of time and effort), what could be better than an author who is collapsible to a few short lines? One or two of Marshall McLuhan’s phrases seem to have become shorthand for aspects of modern experience; you come across ‘the global village’ and ‘the medium is the message’ almost everyday. The process has gone so far that McLuhan exists almost solely as a series of gnomic extracts: an author you don’t have to read.

This book is another volume in Gingko Press’s vast programme of reprinting almost all of McLuhan’s work: 19 books over five years. This is a book of brief quotations from the author’s work, but to avoid calling it ‘The Book of Quotations’, the authors have invented a new word: the probe. McLuhan is not the author of this book: he wrote the words, but in a different order, and with different effect than the one presented here.

One of the authors is his son, Eric McLuhan, who is presumably inheritor of his father’s estate, and therefore stands to benefit financially from every new publication bearing his father’s name. The second is William Kuhns, who has been condensing McLuhan’s work into packets of easy-to-digest one-liners for some time.

Here is what Kuhns says about the value of gathering quotations: ‘McLuhan’s best aphorisms can be described as arcs of thought strikingly like subatomic trajectories; they’re startling, constantly transformative, and influenced by the subtle participation of the observer’. I don’t know what this means, but if I don’t understand the probes, I can be accused of not participating enough.

What Kuhns has actually done is very unpoetic. His process has been to slice a hundred lines out of McLuhan’s work, robbing them of all context, then jumble them up, give them a fancy name, and publish them with a kind of lie on the cover, ‘By Marshall McLuhan’. This book – which is utter nonsense, by the way – is no more by McLuhan than a glossy calendar is ‘by Matisse’. This is publishing based on the vain hope that a few well-chosen quotations, like DNA, are somehow imprinted with all the information you needed to reconstruct the full set of books, and all the weight of the thought in McLuhan’s life.

Now we come to David Carson, the celebrity turn. He has to create an interpretation of each quote, and he has to be given credit for effort. He has struggled to find different ways of laying out each passage, and has made the whole thing very busy, with blurry photographs and fragments of left-over artwork. John Plunkett pioneered this approach – to much more satisfying and witty effect – in Wired magazine several years ago. But it is wrong to judge Carson too harshly – any designer would fail this task, so dislocated and fruitless is the content. I can hear McLuhan – author of numerous deeply researched and well-written books – tutting from the grave.

The Book of Probes, by Marshall McLuhan is published by Gingko Press and retails at £32

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