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Marshall McLuhan

by Douglas Coupland

Only Douglas Coupland could have written Marshall McLuhan. In his contribution to Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians biography series, Coupland challenges the grandiose nationalistic poise of the series, and indeed the very nature of biography itself. Employing a typographical collage that combines aphorisms, YouTube commentary, computer-generated anagrams of McLuhan’s name, AbeBooks.com online book reviews, and snippets of Coupland’s own fiction, the celebrated novelist and cultural analyst paints an eclectic but reverent portrait of a man he considers first and foremost an artist.

Though McLuhan is known for popularizing the idea of communication across a global village, he was actually wary and distrustful of the potential impact of technological change. Despite his reputation as a seer and iconoclast, McLuhan was strikingly conservative. After converting to Catholicism as a young man, he attended Mass almost every day for the rest of his life. Despite his ascension in the free-thinking 1960s, McLuhan was prone to expressing anti-feminist and homophobic ideas. Coupland compares McLuhan to pop-art phenom Andy Warhol, because of the intense fervour of his devotees and his evident ability to recognize and capitalize on patterns in popular culture.

In Coupland’s assessment, McLuhan’s perspective and accomplishments are attributable not merely to his education or his upbringing, but to specific biological factors, including cerebral abnormalities that eventually led to a pair of debilitating strokes. Coupland argues that, in a sense, the observation that “the medium is the message” is directly applicable to McLuhan’s brain and nervous system.

Marshall McLuhan is a postmodern, unsentimental love letter from an appreciative and thoughtful heir to his intellectual legacy. The book raises deep questions but does so in Coupland’s trademark detached style, which is wry, amused, and conversational. Identifying parallels between his own life and that of his subject and including several McLuhanesque pieces of his own writing, the author reveals almost as much about himself as he does about his subject.