Marshall McLuhan, Escape into Understanding, A Biography by W. Terrence Gordon (Basic Books, New York: 1997). This is the only authorized biography of
the famous so-called media guru. The author was allowed access to McLuhan’s journals and papers, and
conducted extensive interviews with his family, friends, and collaborators. In my opinion this is not a compelling book, but it is nonetheless well-written, quite
thorough, and a must-read for serious McLuhan buffs. Outwardly, McLuhan did not live a particularly fascinating life, but the world of ideas he throve in is beyond
the grasp of many lesser minds. He was a serious scholar who read voraciously and who saw relationships in the most disparate systems of thought. His crucial
insight was that the invention of moveable type (i.e., print technology) altered the sense ratios of literate man and gave him a visual bias that that has transformed the
world. McLuhan followed this insight with the more general one that it is not so much the content of our media that change our lives, but the media themselves.
Hence, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan excelled at seeing the big picture. Terrence Gordon has
written a well balanced and readible biography that challenges us to understand this very complex man. In reflecting on my own intellectual history, I find that many of the most important books I have read
were introduced to me by Marshall McLuhan.
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The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York: 1991). This book is really two biographies in one--Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical genius, and G.H. Hardy, the Cambridge mathematics professor who discovered his genius and helped bring it to flower.
Both were very interesting men. Ramanujan was a devout Hindu brahmin, socially inept and dominated by a controlling mother, who lived in a realm of abstract
number theory so advanced that only a dozen people in the world could understand the import of his work. Ramanujan made intuitive leaps that the
world’s best mathematicians are still struggling with. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 32. Hardy was a brilliant and eccentric academic, member of the famed
Apostles club at Cambridge, and proponent of pure (as opposed to applied) mathematics. He spent much of his life probing the theorums Ramanujan
sketched out in his brief but fervid life. Hardy gave Ramanujan the mathematical background and discipline he needed to harness his genius and actually prove his speculations. Hardy was said to be a
brilliant conversationalist, an avid cricket (and later a baseball) fan, and perhaps the greatest lecturer in
abstract mathematics of the 20th century. This book tells the stories of Ramanujan’s and Hardy’s lives
and their remarkable collaboration; it outlines and attempts to explain the import of their mathematical achievements, but does not go into the complex math as, even today, very few people can understand it.
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Autobiography, by John Stuart Mill (Longmans, Green, and Co., London, New York, Bombay, and Calcutta: 1908). Mill, like his father, was a polymath, and
one of the most remarkable men of his age. Born in the year 6 of the 19th century, and educated by his father from the time he was three, Mill was one of the great English liberal thinkers. He has
influenced generations of English-speaking people with his democratic ideals. His principal writings include The System of Logic, Principals of Political Economy, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and the Autobiography. On Liberty has been, as he himself predicted, his most lasting work--one that is still much read in our own day.
I absolutely fell in love with Mill's prose, which has rarely been equalled for its beauty. To give you an idea both of the content of the Autobiography and the quality of Mill's prose I should like to provide two quotes. The first is in regard to his father and his early education:
"It would have been no small thing, had he done no more than to support himself and his family during so many years by writing, without ever being in debt, or in any pecuniary difficulty; holding, as he did, opinions, both in politics and in religion, which were more odious to all persons of influence, and to the common run of prosperous Englishmen, in that generation than either before or since; and being not only a man whom nothing would have induced to write against his convictions, but one who invariably threw into everything he wrote, as much of his convictions as he thought the circumstance would in any way permit: being, it must also be said, one who never did anything negligently; never undertook any task, literary or other, on which he did not conscientiously bestow all the labour necessary for performing it adequately. [...] And to this is to be added, that during the whole period, a considerable part of almost every day was employed in the instruction of his children: in the case of one of whom, myself, he exerted an amount of labour, care, and perseverance rarely, if ever, employed for a similar purpose, in endeavouring to give, according to his own conception, the highest order of intellectual education.
"I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek; I have
been told that it was when I was three years old. [...] I learnt no Latin until my eighth year."
In this second quote, Mill speaks of his collaboration with his wife:
"When two persons have their thoughts and speculations completely in common; when all subjects of intellectual or moral interest are discussed
between them in daily life, and probed to much greater depths than are usually or conveniently sounded in writings intended for general readers;
when they set out from the same principles, and arrive at their conclusions by processes pursued jointly, it is of little consequence in respect to the
question of originality, which of them holds the pen; the one who contributes least to the composition may contribute most to the thought;
the writings which result are the joint product of both, and it must often be impossible to disentangle
their respective parts, and affirm that this belongs to one and that to the other. In this wide sense, not
only during the years of our married life, but during many of the years of confidential friendship which preceded, all my published writings were as much her work as mine; her share in them constantly
increasing as years advanced."
My copy of Autobiography is a paperback printed in 1908, with a signature on the cover: Stephen McKenna, 20.3.09. It is beginning to lose its covers, but otherwise it is still readable at 91 years old.
(How many have read it in 91 years?) I worry about the longevity of our electronic media, so I’m glad I
still have my library of dead-trees to pass on to posterity. This book is currently out of print.
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