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.

Beholding the bright countenance of truth

Marshall McLuhan (April, 1974, age 62).  It’s easy if you have a question

Ran into a graduate student in the French department here at Toronto University.  He seemed down.  I asked him what was wrong and he told me that he feels like he’ll never finish his doctoral dissertation. He’s writing on the tragedies of Voltaire and he’s in his 7th year in the program.  I gave him a hand. “What’s your definition of tragedy?” I asked.  He started to mumble on about tragedy as an art form.  “No, no,” I said.  “It’s a technological medium of communication designed to deliver tragedy.  The Greeks invented it to save their cultural inheritance from the obliterating effects of the invention of the alphabet.”  He seemed perplexed.  No matter he’s a smart kid.  He’ll get it.  Especially if he works with the second piece of advice I gave him.  Reading is easy if you know what you’re looking for.  In other words, come to the book with a question.  (That’s what I did in my doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe, which is a history of the trivium – the arts of grammar, rhetoric and logic – from the 1st century B.C. to the 17th century A.D.)  But enough about this, I must get down to work.          

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  Some questions are better than others

The graduate student McLuhan ran into was Derrick De Kerkhove.  What happened to him?  Four months later he finished and submitted a 450 page thesis which he successfully defended, and whose defence Marshall McLuhan went to see.  (You can read De Kerkhove’s story in the book Who Was Marshall McLuhan?” – see the readings, below.)

McLuhan’s advice about coming to a book, (or anything else – article, magazine, newspaper, blog, tweet) with a question is fascinatingly obvious and a powerful tool for coming away with something valuable and creative rather than just a bunch of facts.   But to employ this approach it helps to have some good questions.  There are many questions you could ask but some are better than others.  Here for example are four general questions that I think are pretty good ones:

  1. What is the writer trying to tell us?
  2. How does she go about the telling?
  3. Why is she telling us this?
  4. What does it matter if she is right, or wrong?

Is this what McLuhan means by know what you are looking for?  What other interpretation(s) are possible?  What other questions do you think are useful?   

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Nevitt, Barrington, with Maurice McLuhan.  Who was Marshall McLuhan?  Exploring a mosaic of impressions.  Edited by Frank Zingrone, Wayne Constantineau, and Eric McLuhan, Toronto: Stoddart, 1994, pp. 86-89.

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Michael Hinton Thursday, October 22nd, 2009
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Education, Technology, Vol. 1 1 Comment

1 Comment to Beholding the bright countenance of truth

  • […] of my new favourite blogs says you should come to a book with a question. That may help when you’re going through the chaff that’s on that bookshelf, maybe even […]

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