Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“The medium is the message” is one of those phrases that seem to summarize in a synthetic, almost formulaic way a major insight of the twentieth century. As such, it has acquired the true mark of popular notoriety: It sounds both familiar and profound, but its meaning is only vaguely understood and its source is often unknown. In fact, tracing this phrase to the book in which it is first discussed at length and to the argument which its originator builds around it is instrumental to a full understanding of its relevance.

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, in which the cryptic phrase appears as a chapter title, was first published in 1964, but it did not attract wide attention until the following year, when extensive review articles appeared in The New Yorker and in other influential journals. From that moment on, the international debate over McLuhan’s controversial theory gained momentum, and Understanding Media rapidly became one of the most discussed books of the 1960’s.

That was probably a most unexpected turn of events for those who had followed the development of McLuhan’s intellectual career. A Canadian by birth, he had studied engineering and then literature at the University of Manitoba. He had subsequently specialized in literary criticism at the University of Cambridge in England. McLuhan greatly admired James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot and traced some of these authors’ stylistic innovations to the symbolism and linguistic dexterity of the Elizabethans. This early interest stimulated McLuhan’s own delight in the inventive use of unusual grammatical constructions, in the creation of puns, and in a formulaic style that very probably contributed to the popular impact of Understanding Media. Yet McLuhan’s early works seem to be squarely in the tradition of rather esoteric academic production, directed at a limited and specialized audience.

Some of the themes he was to develop fully in Understanding Media appear as early as 1951, in his book The Mechanical...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Finkelstein, Sydney Walter. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan, 1968.

Miller, Jonathan. Marshall McLuhan, 1971.

Rosenthal, Raymond, ed. McLuhan: Pro and Con, 1967.

Stearn, Gerald, ed. McLuhan: Hot and Cool, 1967.

Theall, Donald. The Medium Is the Rear View Mirror: Understanding McLuhan, 1971.