I’ve also addressed this topic in a more recent blog post. The text that follows is what I wrote earlier:
“The future of the book is the blurb” is a quote from Marshal McLuhan that appears in in the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.
The magazine features a photo of McLuhan accompanied by a blurb:
“Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) wrote at age twenty that he would never become an academic; he went on to obtain a BA, an MA, a PhD, and teaching positions in four universities. He published Understanding Media in 1964. Quoted more often than he is read, he once observed, ‘The future of the book is the blurb.’”
McLuhan did not have a traditional academic career. Occasionally, academics have attempted to translate his aphorisms into academically acceptable language, arguably with limited success.
I’m reminded of Jane Jacobs. She was required to withdraw from an academic career path because she was deemed to have taken too many courses in a university program that she had enrolled in. Instead, she chose a career path hat arguably led her to have a much stronger impact on the world of ideas than would have otherwise been the case.
I like McLuhan’s quote about the future of the book as the blurb.
There is much to be said for the close study, and wise application, of blurbs, taglines, message tracks, and branding positions.
Some of McLuhan’s early academic work involved the study of rhetoric.
His grasp of rhetoric provided McLuhan with a framework that may have helped him to engage in a striking way with audiences, in person and in writing, and to communicate his ideas – ‘probes,’ as he called them – effectively. His grasp of the interconnectedness of things was a key source of his impact.
Blurbs make sense or they don’t.
Based on a brief article that Alice Munro wrote in 1982 about how she reads a short story, I’ve found it useful to read a text by starting anywhere and making a close study of a paragraph or page.
If the one paragraph — which can be likened to a blurb — makes good sense, I continue reading. Occasionally, I’ll read the entire book.
Northrop Frye spoke of garrison and condominium mentalities
I am very much impressed by the work of Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. Of the latter two writers, I have a particular interest in their non-fiction work and interviews.
I like to think of them as among the greatest outcomes, two centuries later, of the War of 1812.
The blurbs are:
(1) the garrison mentality, which serves to bring “social activity into an intense if constricted focus,” and which is characterised by military and other priorities that “tend to obliterate the creative impulse,” and
(2) “the condominium mentality, which is neither social nor creative, and which forces the cultural energies of the country into forming a kind of counter-environment.”
The article explains that a counter-environment “does little to encourage residents to explore the larger community, to mingle and interact with outsiders. It doesn’t enforce prudery [which the garrison mentality had reinfoced, according to Frye], but neither does it foster creativity.”
In the article Kyle Carston Wyatt, managing editor of The Walrus, discusses in some detail the concept of a condomuniums as gated communities.
The discussion brings to mind the origins and early history of Long Branch as a late-1800s gated community.
Until the 1880s, Long Branch was a rural community. James Eastwood, who had bought land from the descendants of Colonel Samuel Smith, has been described as understanding the investment potential of developing the area as a resort.
He sold some of his land to Thomas Wilkie, who at one point in his career needed take a break to restore his health. He had recuperated in the country setting in what is now Long Branch. Around that time he was aware that affluent citizens from Toronto were seeking rest and recreation in Muskoka and Lake Simcoe.
He promoted the Long Branch resort, a socially segregated gated community, which served to keep out rowdy intruders, as an alternative destination. The resort was part of a trend across North America focusing on the restorative powers of nature in response to urbanization.
The gated community known as the Long Branch Resort no longer exists.
The article in The Walrus concludes with a reference to the 1962 CBC Massey Lectures in which Northrop Frye emphasized the importance of education in literature and the arts, and cautioned against an overly raid sense of cultural change.
“People who can do nothing but accept their social mythology can only try,” Frye is quoted in the article as remarking, “to huddle together when they feel frightened or threatened, and in that situation their clichés turn hsyterical.”
The article concludes with the comment that condos serve a purpose, including “increased desnity, walkable communities, simpler upkeep, smaller footprints, and democratized poperty ownership.”
However, says the author, who happens to live in a condo, “in terms of social integration and cultural creativity, the condo is still a beta concept, which we haven’t yet managed to fully troubleshoot.”