A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan continues. If he had lived Marshall would have been 100 on July 21, 2011. Join me in the countdown to his centennial, and an exploration of more of his observations on the way media work in the electric age in which we live.


Business talks!

Marshall McLuhan (1969, age 58).  Talking is a labour-saving technology!

“The executive who has many decisions to make must resort to the speedy oral conference with specially briefed experts.  The sheer quantity of information entering into such frequent decisions could not possibly be presented in linear, written form.”

Me (April, 2011, age 58).  Hence, the popularity of the single page report!

The purpose of the single page is not to record everything that needs to be said.  It is to remind the reader of everything that needs to be said later and in greater detail.  And as this clip suggests not all that is said needs to be recorded.

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast, 1969, p. 72.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, April 19th, 2011
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The bloody sports page!

Marshall McLuhan (1969, age 58).  Blast the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat!

“Blast The Sports Page pantheon of pickled gods and archetypes.”

Me (March, 2011, age 58).  Hard to disagree with Marshall on this one.

Is there any writing more irritating than the prose that appears in the sports pages of a daily newspaper?  Here is a close competitor, TV sports commentary.

Cordially, Marshall and Me



Marshall McLuhan, Counter-Blast, 1969, p. 19.

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Michael Hinton Friday, April 8th, 2011
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Working with others.

Marshall McLuhan (October 8, 1966, age 55).  What a day!

I spent the day with George Leonard, who is a Senior Editor at Look Magazine.  We talked without interruption from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. about the future of education.  Quite frankly education isn’t what it used to be since the coming of TV.  George is going to write up our conversation and the article will appear in Look.  I can’t wait to see the expression on the face of the Dean of Graduate Studies when I show him my latest publication.  He’ll be apoplectic.

Me (July, 2010, age 57)  Which raises questions

“The Future of Education: The Class of 1989,” appeared in Look (February 21, 1967) as an article jointly written by Marshall McLuhan and George B. Leonard.  But, as Leonard explains in his memoir, “Jamming with McLuhan, 1967,” McLuhan had nothing to do with the writing of it.  Leonard says that he enjoyed the intellectual experience of working with McLuhan.  But after writing only one other article – “The Future of Sex” – Leonard decided to end the partnership.  In short, Leonard thought he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved.  He was doing the hard work of writing and a good deal of the thinking, but readers were assuming the ideas were all McLuhan’s.

Are unequal partnerships of this type destined to fail?  How much of the writing of the later McLuhan – particularly in his co-authored work – is actually McLuhan?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Reading for this post

Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, Who Was Marshall McLuhan? 1994, pp. 227-230.

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Michael Hinton Friday, July 23rd, 2010
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Marshall McLuhan: Filmmaker.

Marshall McLuhan (1970, age 68/69).  Let’s make a movie!

I have just spent a very productive day with Jane Jacobs.  We have written a script for a movie, “A Burning Would.” (You will of course recognize the reference to Finnegans Wake, “A burning would has come to dance inane.”)  If all works out this film will either be the final word on the nature of film or stop the Spadina Expressway dead in its tracks.

Me (June 2010, age 57)   Lessons?

Jane Jacobs describes the chaotic and exhilarating day she spent with McLuhan writing a film script in Who was Marshall McLuhan.  The word “script” is an exaggeration.  Here’s how the day went:  he persuaded her to give it a try, they talked about ideas, McLuhan’s secretary, Margaret Stewart took notes, and typed them up, and McLuhan made arrangements to meet with the filmmaker David Mackay to discuss the “script.”  Jacobs describes the resulting “script” as “garbled and unreadable” but also as “dazzling sparks and fragments.”

Remarkably the film (12 minutes long) was made [and even more remarkably doesn’t seem to be posted on YouTube].  Jacobs says that the film was “good” but “the final product bore no relationship at all to our original script.”

Perhaps, the major lessons to be learned from this film are:

Don’t be afraid to try new things (neither Jacobs nor McLuhan had ever tried to write a script before.)

Get yourself good partners.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

What new things are you doing?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Who Was Marshall McLuhan. Edited by Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, 1995, pp. 101-102.

For other inspiration see Julien Smith’s In over your head.

And thanks to Michael Edmunds for this interview of McLuhan on his plans for filmmaking originally published in Take One in the 1970sMarshall McLuhan makes a movie.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, June 30th, 2010
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The McLuhan method.

Marshall McLuhan (Spring 1971, age 59). At work in the Coach House

Come in, come in.  Watch your step.  No it’s no bother.  Glad you came.  Mrs. Stewart, let’s continue this dictation later.  Now let me explain what I’m doing.  It may not look like it, but I’m writing a book.   You see these piles of books each with a file folder on top?  That’s how you write a book.  Get yourself some file folders, fill them with clippings and quotations, and then comment on them.  Commenting, by the way, is easier if you have a secretary to comment to.

Me (June 2010, age 57).  Order out of chaos

Dictation probably worked well for McLuhan because he liked to talk ideas out.  I don’t.  I prefer to write ideas out.  The file folder method, however, is very similar the one I have chosen as the method for this blog.  Each blog begins with a book by or about McLuhan in which I mark passages and a sheet of paper on which I place other references, clippings and quotations, which I then comment on.  How’s it going?  As the man who jumped off the Empire State building, said as he hurtled past the 40th floor, “so far so good.”

What’s your method of workDid you choose it or did it choose you?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Who Was Marshall McLuhan, edited by Barrington Nevitt with Maurice McLuhan, 1995, pp. 141.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, June 19th, 2010
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The writing methods of Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan (Fall 1951, age 40).  Boredom is the enemy!

Finally my book on industrial folklore is being published by Vanguard Press.  I will be very glad to get it out of my mind as it now seems to me to be ancient history.  I’ve lectured it, written it, and the editors have hounded me to re-write it for years.  I’m thoroughly sick of it.

Me (May 2010, age 57).   Avoiding boredom came at a cost

Like all of McLuhan’s books his first one, The Mechanical Bride, is not easy reading.  Part of the reason is that he could not bring himself to rewrite.  He wrote it seems to amuse himself and he wrote very quickly.  Whenever he was asked by his editors to look again at anything he wrote he refused to clarify his ideas but instead added on new ideas to the ones already there.

The problem, said Seon Manley, who was an editor at Vanguard in the 1940s, is that anything that smacked of good writing – clarifying an idea, cutting extraneous material, or providing a telling example – bored McLuhan.  And McLuhan refused “to bore himself.”  The result was a style of writing many have found impenetrable.

How then should an intelligent reader approach the task of reading Marshall McLuhan?  Read fast?  Don’t be afraid to skim or jump about?  Don’t worry if you don’t get it?  Realize, perhaps, you’re not meant to?

Is it true, as McLuhan liked to say, “clear prose indicates the absence of thought?”

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, pp. 118.

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, May 25th, 2010
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The reading public no longer exists.

Marshall McLuhan (January 12, 1973, age 61). Thousands of reading publics exist

When I was at Cambridge, in the 1930s, the library of the English School maintained displays of a small number of relevant books covering a variety of different fields.  Looking over the shelves I came away with the distinct idea that this was what you needed to know to know what was happening in history, poetry, or any other field.  Today however such an impression is an impossibility.  So much is being published – in America alone 39,000 books are published every year –  there cannot be a reading public only publics.  We read what we will and except for very modest area of overlap our reading separates us from one another.

Me (May 2010, age 57).   Thousands have become millions.

Every book club is a reading public.  Each blog has its reading public, some large, most small.

What are the implications?  Are programs like “Canada Reads” necessary to maintain a sense of community?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 462.

Deborah Hinton‘s post @ Communication Matters

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, May 5th, 2010
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The Tom Wolfe approach.

Marshall McLuhan (November 22, 1965, age 54). What a delightful portrait!

Corinne and I have just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s delightful portrait of me.  He’s got a few details wrong, but I like the big picture.

Me (March 2010, age 57). What a delightful approach

In 1965, at the height of Marshall McLuhan’s celebrity, Tom Wolfe published a profile of McLuhan in New York, the Sunday magazine section of the New York World Journal Tribune.  In that article which he revised and included in his 1968 collection of essays, The Pump House Gang, he probably did exaggerate how much McLuhan was paid for speaking engagements ($25,000 seems high), and his description of McLuhan’s pre-tied tie as a ‘snap-on’ is probably better described as a ‘clip-on.’ [earlier post].  But these are small quibbles, this is still one of the best short descriptions of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, celebrity, and personality

His approach – captured in the title of his article, ‘What if he’s right?’ – is I think the best way to approach McLuhan’s ideas.  Consider, for example, one of McLuhan’s ideas which people in the 1960s considered crazy:  in the future goods of all kinds will be sold unwrapped in bins.  Today, with the rise of stores such as Winner’s and Whole Foods, and the environmental movement McLuhan’s prediction is sounding more and more like common sense.

What if he’s right?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p. 330.

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 26th, 2010
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Want to write like Milton?

Marshall McLuhan (April 20, 1964, age 52). Hendiadys is the key.

At breakfast I remarked to Corinne and the children that Ernest Sirlock’s remarkable article on Milton’s prose got me thinking about Milton’s use of the grammatical figure of Hendiadys.  Blank looks all around.  No matter – this is important.  Hendiadys is the mark of the 17th century mind.  A mind conditioned to look at the world ambivalently.  Not simply as “A” or “B” but “A” and “B”.  I looked again at Paradise Lost.  Do you know that Milton uses this device 19 times in the first 100 lines? “Death and Woe,” “Restore and regain,” “Raise and support” et cetera and ad infinitum!  Someone should study this.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Let’s study it

But let’s study it not in Milton’s prose but Marshall McLuhan’s.  “Hendiadys” is a figure of speech, a “striking or unusual configuration of words or phrases.”  It is a Greek word meaning, “one by means of two.”  Richard Lanham (A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms) defines it as the”expression of an idea by two nouns connected by “and” instead of a noun and its qualifier.”  He gives as an example, “Not  you, coy Madame, your lowers and your looks,’ for “your lowering looks.”  If we apply this model to McLuhan’s examples from Milton we get the following translations: “deathly woe,” “restorative regain,” and “raising support.”

McLuhan is struck by the number of times he finds hendiadys appearing in the first 100 lines of Paradise Lost – 19.  How many times do you think we could find hendiadys appearing in the first 100 lines of his best seller Understanding Media published in 1964?  2 or 3?  I counted 20.  Here are the first three: “fragmentary and mechanical,” “space and time,” “collectively and corporately.”

Did Marshall McLuhan have a 17th century mind?   Did he intentionally edit his prose to increase its “complexity and ambivalence” (excuse my hendiadys)?  Would this feature, rather than the number of new ideas, say, be the real reason Understanding Media is difficult to understand?  Can you use hendiadys to effect in your writing to increase its power and profundity?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.298.

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 5th, 2010
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McLuhan’s "big book"

Marshall McLuhan (November 18, 1976, age 65). Those bloody books

My son, Eric asked me the other day why I didn’t dedicate any of my books.  It’s not as if I don’t have people about me that have been a great influence or a great stimulus – Harold Innis, Wyndham Lewis, Siegfried Giedion; Mother, Corinne, Pierre Trudeau.  The simple fact is that I am not very proud of my books, especially the later ones.  You see I talk them through and when I am talking that’s when they’re at their best.  Lately though, I fear, even my talk is not me at my best.  The ideas the words don’t come to me as they used to do – unbidden and without asking [see previous posts – “30 years ago today..” and “Fear and loathing of doctors”.  It used to be every corner I turned presented me with a new thought.  Minerva’s Owl flew early for me and now I believe she will never fly for me again.

Me (November 2009, age 57). That bloody McLuhan

Robert Fulford, who writes for the Toronto Star, writes that “McLuhan made a horrible mistake – he didn’t write the “big book.”  He didn’t write the book that takes four or five years in which you test your ideas and you find out which ones are meaningless and which are valid … so there’s nowhere that his admirers can tell people to go and say,” Read that –that’s what McLuhan’s got to say to you.”

Marshall McLuhan never wrote a big book.  But I don’t think he was being entirely truthful when he told his son he didn’t dedicate his books to any one because he wasn’t proud of any of them.  The truth is that he wasn’t proud of the first and last books he was involved in the writing of, but but he was proud of his second and third books, The Gutenberg Galaxy – it won a Governor General’s Award – a Canadian Pulitzer – and Understanding Media – a best seller, which sold 200,000 copies in the spring of 1964.  Neither of these books, however, is easy to understand.  Why he didn’t dedicate them to anyone is a bit of a mystery.  Why he never wrote a big book isn’t.  He never considered his thinking done.

There is, however, a book you can read, which isn’t his big book, but is at least an understandable book.  A book in which you can hear Marshall McLuhan talk out his ideas.  You won’t find simple answers to complex questions but you will find a readable, plain speaking McLuhan.  The book is: The Letters of Marshall McLuhan, Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987.

If you were going to dedicate a book for McLuhan, say the Gutenberg Galaxy or Understanding Media, who would you have him dedicate them to?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections On and By Marshall McLuhan. Ed. Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart. Scarborough Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1996, p. 188.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, November 28th, 2009
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