Of all the figures that emerged in the '60s, cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan perhaps looms largest over the mediascape we experience today. His insights on the nature of media still resonate, but his actual writings are often misinterpreted, if they're actually even still read at all. It's perfectly fitting then that novelist Douglas Coupland takes his title for the book from McLuhan's memorable line from his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall.
In You Know Nothing of My Work! Coupland creatively interpolates a concise vivid biography of McLuhan with a personal interpretation of his work. Coupland looks at McLuhan from several perspectives: as a fellow Canadian, a practicing Catholic and as a multi-disciplinary academic whose origins far from the centers of cultural power helped foster a bold independence of mind. The book is equally fine at evoking the early 20th century Winnipeg where McLuhan grew up, his early family life, his struggle to find an academic position and the evolution of his thought as he rose from obscure provincial professor to cultural icon who appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Far from being the booster of modern technology he's often portrayed as, McLuhan was deeply skeptical of modern technology. Coupland points out that his theological roots as a Catholic led him to search for morals and meaning in his religion, so when he analyzed media he did so in a more value neutral manner and he found that explicit moral concerns often inhibited the flow of free ideas. He was the model of a compartmentalized personality. He was once quoted as saying, "I don't necessarily agree with everything I say," and there's an odd gnomic quality in McLuhan's writing that begs interpretation. Coupland is happy to provide some, but ends up appreciating that McLuhan's writing is sometimes a tough nut to crack. The book appreciates McLuhan's complexity, and revels in it.
Unlike most academics, McLuhan had the instincts of an artist -- quotation and collage are deployed in his work in a way more akin to a visual artist or a poet. Coupland attempts to use a similar method in this book, with generally salutary results. Occasionally he casts his net a little too randomly, as when he inserts comments on YouTube videos of McLuhan or online book listings of McLuhan's out of print work. He's attempting to invoke the modern media world in which McLuhan's work exists today, but sometimes it seems a bit superfluous to the main thrust of the book.
You Know Nothing of My Work! works as both a fine introductory primer to McLuhan's thought and a portrait of a uniquely eccentric personality.