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Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday sparks discussion on the future of publishing

Robert Bean, Voicewriter, 2010

On July 20, as part of the Marshall McLuhan Centenary celebrations happening this week in Toronto, a group of academics, journalists, retailers, and publishers take part in a panel entitled Reading and Publishing: Paper or Screen, about the changing format of the book and the future of reading, publishing, and libraries. Free tickets for the event are available here.

To be held at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, the panel participants are: Alex Kuskis (Athabasca University), John Cruickshank (Toronto Star), Susan Caron (Toronto Public Library), Jian Ghomeshi (CBC Radio), Nathan Maharaj (Kobo), Alana Wilcox (Coach House Press), and Carolyn Wood (Association of Canadian Publishers).

For those feeling a little pessimistic about the state of publishing these days, perhaps it’s time to reflect on McLuhan’s own words. Earlier this spring, the Marshall McLuhan Coach House at the University of Toronto hosted an exhibition of photographs by artist Robert Bean called Illuminated Manuscripts. Bean photographed outdated writing machines from the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, including a Dictaphone and a typewriter.

Bean also photographed selections of McLuhan’s original manuscripts from the Library and Archives of Canada, including a 1970 note titled A Note on Obsolescence. In it McLuhan writes:

When print or the motor car is referred to as “obsolete,” many people assume that it is therefore doomed to speedy extinction. A casual glance at the historical record indicates the contrary. Gutenberg did not discourage handwriting. There is a great deal more handwriting even in the age of the typewriter than there ever was before.

McLuhan concludes that obsolescence has a role “in sparking creativity and the invention of new order.