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A lone a last a loved a long the

November 18, 2015

Dear reader;

By way of having something of a tidy end to this collection of discoveries, I present a few thoughts on this blog – how I came to inventory Marshall McLuhan’s personal ‘working’ library – and how I got hooked into my father and grandfather’s work, and some of where it’s taken me since I last posted here….
It seems like a lifetime ago.


December 21st, 2010 – the date of my first blog entry on this website. That’s essentially five years ago. If it’s not a lifetime, it’s an age. It was in December 2010 that I began making an inventory of the personal library of Marshall McLuhan. I’ve since come to refer to it as his ‘working library’, but at the start it was a mass of books, many of them on the shelves of my dad’s library, but largely in boxes in storage in a big red barn. Little more. Incidentally, my dad’s library is in its own little barn in the rural Ontario countryside, and we call it the ‘scriptorium’. That is why I titled this blog ‘inscriptorium’, because it was in that building where, seated on one side of an old English oak refectory table, I began my incredible journey into the intellectual life of my grandfather Marshall McLuhan.

It’s always funny, and/or odd, to look back at the things I have written at a younger age. Even five years is long enough to realize how much I have changed. With that in mind, I may look back at this post after some time and think similar thoughts. How young I was. How little I knew. How much was still to come.

In the winter of 2010 I had only recently become interested in the McLuhan work – I phrase it that way, because I consider much of my father Eric McLuhan’s work to be inextricable from Marshall McLuhan’s work. Eric worked with Marshall for the last fifteen or so years of Marshall’s life, collaborated with him during that time, but also has dedicated much of his life to bringing forward Marshall’s work. I cannot speak objectively of much of this, and won’t try. Eric brought forward many works such as ‘Laws of Media: The New Science’, and ‘Media and Formal Cause’, and has worked tirelessly to champion other of his father’s works such as Marshall’s doctoral thesis, published as ‘The Classic Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time’.

My father was very much prepared from an early age to be able to do such things, though I am not sure it was quite along the lines of being groomed for succession. But my father did come to work with his father as much by his own free will as any of us have such a thing. Eric left home to enlist in the United States Air Force (he was born in St. Louis) and earned his Bachelor’s degree while down there. He went on to do further degrees, and has received an honourary one or two.

I was a poor student, uninterested in school after around grade three. My eventual goal was to graduate high school before I turned twenty, and I just managed it. (At this point in my life, I kind of wish I had gotten a Bachelor’s degree along the line, but that wasn’t to be).

I am sure that talking so much about myself is dull (though that’s never stopped me), so suffice to say that my dad and I took very different – if similar at times – paths and so we arrive at very different – if similar at times – places with regard to engagement in the McLuhan work.

My entry into the McLuhan work was as a travel companion and assistant. Eric needed someone to travel with him to Poland for a talk, and I was asked to go with him. Along with a touch of the absent-minded professor, he is a diabetic and sometimes has trouble. He needs someone with him who knows how to help him if he needs help. My mother usually went with him, but she wasn’t particularly interested in Poland (her loss – it’s an amazing place!) so when asked, I said yes. Sounded interesting, and I wasn’t up to much. It was a really great experience for me. I went on a few more trips with him and was pretty much hooked.


I had tried to dive into the McLuhan world at various points in my life, but it didn’t really stick until I started traveling with my dad. I see myself more as a curator than a collaborator. I don’t know that I’ll have much new to say about these things than my father and grandfather have already discovered, but I am passionate about helping others learn.

Traveling with my father on speaking engagements was the hook, but inventorying Marshall’s library was the point of no return.

I spent about eighteen months working with the library. That may sound like a long time, but it was a real challenge to do it so fast. There may be people who could do the job faster, but not me. I feel as if I could still be at it, five years later.

Interesting things got in the way of speed, as this blog is witness to.

I couldn’t help but pause and explore. The more I saw, the more I wanted to know. I’d call over to dad at his desk and ask what something meant, and I started a list of Marshall’s common abbreviations and their meanings. He would wander over when I brought in a new box from the barn and my desk filled with books which had not seen light of day for years. It was exciting for both of us.

At one point, I thought that some of the annotations would make for fun Twitter posts, so I started up a Twitter account:

As the posts in this blog demonstrate, many things were discovered and re-discovered, but I only scratched the surface.

There remains so much to be learned from Marshall’s library. Within the pages are all sorts of clues to his life, thought, intellectual development. There’s more than one new angle for a biographer to pursue.

Several of the books are rich with Marshall’s added annotation and material to make for critical editions, or collections of his readings on various subjects.

The possibilities are, if not endless, enormous – but, as I already stated, I do not pretend at objectivity, and so you may not share my wonder and enthusiasm.

Well. All good things, and all that.

In 2011, the centenary of Marshall’s birth in July 1911, Eric was invited to go to Porto Alegre, in Brazil, to speak at PUCRS. I went with him. While we were having dinner, I was speaking to Prof. Eduardo Pellanda about my inventory and he asked if I would present to his students about it. I had my computer with me with my photos (I took a lot, though I wish I had more) and I of course accepted. I have a hard time saying no to things like that. I spent the next day assembling a presentation of images and writing some things to say. I hope what I presented was worthwhile – I enjoyed it.

As times has gone by, and I’ve reflected more on the library and its significance, I’ve been able to speak with more confidence, and with more consideration for the library as an artifact, what it means, and its potential to scholarship – not just as a biographical interest, but as raw material of McLuhan thought which is there dormant, waiting for some light to germinate and flower.

Since my hasty first presentation in Brazil, I have presented at Crossmedia Banff; at the opening of the collection at the Fisher Rare Book Library, its new home (watch here, if you care to. Includes comments by Eric McLuhan); in my new hometown of Picton; and most recently at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg – Marshall’s alma mater. For the Winnipeg talk, I visited the collection for the first time as a researcher, to get some photos that I didn’t have. I could (and may) write another post on that experience. I hope to be able to have further opportunities to share my love of this collection with more people.

I’ve also started teaching a bit, and have led a workshop on understanding ‘the medium is the message’ (which was a good idea, but too big a topic for one sitting! If I do it again, I’ll do it as at least four separate sessions). And in the last few weeks I have taught my first classes in Toronto to elementary and high school students on some introductory media criticism subjects such as ‘figure/ground’.

The journey continues. Thanks for coming along for part of the ride!



3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2015 10:21 pm

    I’d like to think I am I small part of this journey, and am looking forward to further enlightenment.

  2. Alan Thomas permalink
    July 26, 2016 6:51 pm

    Greetings Andrew. I really enjoyed your chat on CBC Fresh Air. It brought back some memories for me. I’m a generation a head of you, my Father was also a philosopher was a contemporary of your Grandfathers. There’s folklore in our family, that it was at our house at a party in Vancouver, that some of his famous words were uttered. In fact, as the story goes, I was a toddler present at some of those parties. I did day folklore right? My Dad passed some time ago, and we managed to donate all of his materials to the UofT Library. There were some heavy hitters, in that group, McLuhan, Kidd, and my Dad Alan Thomas, must have been fascinating to have been there. You have taken on quite a project, I cant imagine how amazing it must be to be reading all of his annotations, in all those books. Take Care. Alan Thomas Jr.

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