Understanding Me Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

A former librarian of Congress, the historian Daniel Boorstin described the printed book as the most efficient system ever devised for the storage and retrieval of information. Those who share his bias may find it ironic that many hours of Marshall McLuhan's pronouncements on the new electronic media, preserved in long obsolete videotape formats, are now readily accessible in book form. Yet McLuhan was a professor of literature and liked to remind television interviewers such as Tom Brokaw, “I teach books from morning till night.”

McLuhan's only quarrel with the print universe was that it promotes linear, sequential thinking that ill prepares people for the electronic universe, where information travels at the speed of light. As he watched his children grow up with television, he realized that the younger generation perceived the world differently than their parents did, that the “generation gap” bewailed in the popular press was really a technology gap. Like Henry David Thoreau in the nineteenth century, McLuhan realized that tools use people as much as people use tools; while Thoreau concentrated on tools of industrial production, however, McLuhan focused on tools of communication. All tools, he said, are extensions of the individual human being.

McLuhan took to the new media more readily than most of his contemporaries, for he was a self-proclaimed “right-brain” man, temperamentally inclined to the creative and simultaneous rather than the rational and sequential. He thought in aphorisms and, while other aphoristic thinkers, such as his colleague Northrop Frye, worked hard to organize their insights into reasoned essays, he did not worry about consistency or coherence but preferred to let readers make their own connections. As a professor of literature and a close student of modernism, he built on the discontinuities of imagism in poetry and cubism in painting. He also anticipated the discontinuities of music videos, news crawlers, and push messages over the Internet.

Frye acknowledged that McLuhan taught him the importance of discontinuity in the modern world. Other professors were less kind and said McLuhan's books simply did not hold together. Indeed, once he became established as a media commentator, McLuhan tended to collaborate, bringing ideas to a book rather than architectonics.

Understanding Me is a posthumous collaboration between McLuhan and his daughter Stephanie, who became a television producer. The collaboration extends to his former student Staines, now a professor of literature himself, and to Tom Wolfe, the American journalist whose 1965 essay on McLuhan asked the inescapable question, “What if He's Right?” Much of the material that Stephanie McLuhan brought to David Staines for editing was already available in The Video McLuhan (1996), a set of six videotapes hosted by Wolfe and sold to libraries for $595. Very little is lost in the transposition to print, only McLuhan's cameo appearance in Annie Hall (1977) and reminders of how much people smoked in the 1960's and how oddly they dressed in the 1970's. Much is gained, meanwhile, from the addition of short introductions, unobtrusive notes, and a helpful index.

There are, in all, eighteen introductions to thirteen lectures and seven interviews, arranged in chronological sequence. (Some items are paired.) The range of tone is considerably greater than the subtitle's dichotomy suggests. The lectures vary from prepared presentations at academic conferences to after-dinner speeches for businessmen and talks to graduate and undergraduate students on various campuses. The interviews range from a panel discussion to serious conversations with fellow writers and light banter with television hosts. The panel features the venerable American journalist Gilbert Seldes, who covered radio, film, and early television in essays that culminated in The American Audience (1950). The conversations include both a studio exchange with the literary critic Frank Kermode and a backyard chat with Wolfe, who clearly “clicks” with McLuhan. The banter touches on topics such as the presidential debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in...

(The entire section is 1706 words.)