A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Be careful how you mark-up your books

Marshall McLuhan (November 19, 1952, age 41).  Writing in books

I have more fun writing in books than I do writing books.  The End of the Gutenberg Era book is taking longer than I thought.  Not surprising, as Corinne tells me I seem to be reading all literature for it.  Here’s how I attack a book.  First I dip into it and grab the big message then I go back and talk with the writer, that is I write to him in the margins.  Take this new book that just came out, by William H. Whyte, Jr., and the editors of Fortune magazine, Is Anybody listening? Here’s the heart:  PR types at G.M., G.E. and I.B.M. are spending a fortune selling capitalism and democracy to the world.  And Whyte delivers the shocking news that despite the all expenses paid field trips to New York, London, Paris, and L.A. nobody’s listening!

Here’s one of the conversations I had with Whyte in the margins of his book.  “Of course they aren’t.  Nobody expects people are going to read advertizing copy before they actually buy it.  You should talk with David Ogilvie he’ll give you the low down.  It’s a well understood fact on Madison Avenue that people only read ad copy after they buy the product.”  That’s what Corinne did when I went out and bought her that new vacuum cleaner she’s been asking for.  Spent a whole lunch hour pouring over the glossy pamphlets provided by the good folks at Hoover.  And that’s why Canadian teenagers don’t like Canadian history; they haven’t bought the product yet.

Me (November 2009, age 57).  The problem with highlighting

Marshall McLuhan wrote in his books.  If you go to the national archives you can see his writing in his copies of Saussure, Joyce, and the rest.  I do much the same myself with McLuhan’s books.  Except that I often write orders to myself.  Things like “compare this 1952 outline for The End of the Gutenberg Era to the final table of contents of 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy.”  Or “See Postman.”

There are different ways of marking in books.  Many students I see studying at McGill and Concordia University seem to prefer highlighting.  That is you work your way through a photocopied article or textbook assiduously highlighting in pink, yellow, or blue everything you think is worth keeping and ignoring the rest.  This approach is a method of summarization.  In the olden days, before highlighters, students would underline using coloured pencils or ball point pens to obtain a similar result.  The idea being, I think, that the highlighted or underlined material was what you should pay attention to when you re-read the article or text when it was time to study for your final exams.

The problem is highlighting or underlining does not make you the equal of the article or text, it makes you subservient to it.  May be that’s what you need to do to get an undergraduate degree at university; talking, conversing, writing in the margins is what you need to do to be the equal or the better of the writers of the books you read.

Do you write in your books?  Do you underline?  Do you highlight?  Do use post it notes?  Is it possible to read an electronic book or an article or book on your computer’s screen with understanding if you cannot mark it or make notes on it in some way?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

William H. Whyte, JrIs Anybody Listening? New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

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Michael Hinton Friday, November 27th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 2 Comments

2 Comments to Be careful how you mark-up your books

  • Beth Massiano says:

    Ok – this is exactly why I haven’t bought a kindle!!!!
    My markings are multicolored and textured (Levenger has margin writing tape that I have on my XMass wish list).
    Your tactile friend,

  • michael says:


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