Imagining Marshall McLuhan as a Digital Reader

Alan Galey, “Reading McLuhan Reading Ulysses,” in “Many McLuhans or None at All,” ed. Sarah Sharma, special issue, Canadian Journal of Communication 44, no. 4 (2019): 503-26, [open-access version:]

On March 5-6 I was part of the Reading McLuhuan Reading symposium at NYU, a follow-up to the Many McLuhans symposium held at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in September 2018. Organized by NYU’s Paula McDowell, the New York symposium was a fascinating intersection between book historians, literary scholars, intellectual historians, and others working in the space that McLuhan helped to create for those who care about literature and media alike.

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I’m not a McLuhanite by any stretch, and like many book historians I struggle with his elliptical prose (at least in his books), his loose treatment of historical evidence, and his too-easy generalizations. Today, reading a book like The Gutenberg Galaxy as a factual guide to the history of print would be like a medical student working from a textbook written prior to the discovery of viruses or DNA. What, then, can a modern-day book historian do with McLuhan? For years I mostly bypassed his work and introduced my students to more thorough and reliable (and no less exciting) scholarship like Adrian Johns’s The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. When I did bring McLuhan’s work into courses like Introduction to Culture & Technology, I would accompany it with a stern warning to my students: “don’t write like this!” As John Durham Peters suggests, “one reads McLuhan for sparks, not scholarship” (The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, p. 17). Similarly, Andrew McLuhan’s talk at the NYU symposium emphasized other reasons for reading his grandfather’s work today, particularly the idea that it helps us learn to read a medium the way we would read a poem.

As I’ve been discovering, a good place for a book historian to start with McLuhan is his own books—in the literal sense of his personal library, which is now housed at the Fisher Library in Toronto. The McLuhan of Gutenberg Galaxy drives me mildly nuts, but the McLuhan who read so broadly and deeply, and who annotated his own books so carefully and systematically, is a reader I now approach with real fascination.

McLuhan’s library waits at the Fisher for researchers to explore it, and anyone can start with the online finding aid, and with the blog Inscriptorium, created by Andrew McLuhan, who catalogued his grandfather’s library. His blog is rich with examples and images of McLuhan’s annotation practices, and gives a good sense of the working practices of a scholar who used his books to create a textual workshop.

In 2018 I was asked to speak at the Many McLuhans symposium because I study reader marginalia and regularly give my book history students an “Annotating Reader Profile” assignment. That talk led to a contribution to a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication edited by my colleague Sarah Sharma, appropriately titled “Many McLuhans or None at All.” My article, “Reading McLuhan Reading Ulysses,” is a case study in McLuhan’s annotations in his copies of the James Joyce novel. Why not take his favorite Joyce novel, Finnegans Wake, as my case study? My article offers a few reasons for looking at Ulysses instead, but the key reason is that I’m hoping a more serious Joyce/McLuhan scholar will take on that substantial task. You can find an open-access version of the article here; the full citation is at the top of this post.

What, then, was McLuhan like as a reader? While his own published books are often maddeningly light on notes and sources (again, contrast Johns’s The Nature of the Book), his library reveals that he was a careful and systematic reader, who annotated many of his books so that they’d function like tools in a workshop. In the article I look in detail at two of the four editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses included in the McLuhan collection at the Fisher. This image shows McLuhan’s heavily annotated copy of the two-volume Odyssey Press edition, which McLuhan owned during his student days at Cambridge, where he studied with F.R. Leavis and other great literary scholars of the day. (Odyssey Press was an imprint of Albatross Press, a remarkable German publisher who put out edgy modern literature under the nose of the Nazi regime; see Michele K. Troy’s excellent recent study, Strange Bird: The Albatross Press and the Third Reich.)

McLuhan Odyssey Press Ulysses

McLuhan’s student edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses (Odyssey Press, 1933), held at the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Book Library

McLuhan annotated his Odyssey Press Ulysses volumes copiously. He marked up interesting passages, such as the notoriously difficult opening to the episode Proteus (“Ineluctable modality of the visible…”). On the blank flyleaves, he copied long extracts from critical works by T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and others. McLuhan’s copies even have homemade dustjackets covered in annotations, visible in the image above. (These might have served a second purpose: concealing the fact that he was reading a novel still banned in England when we was at Cambridge. His own literature professor F.R. Leavis ran into trouble with the authorities when he attempted to assign Ulysses to his students in the 1920’s.) In many other books, including his copy of the 1961 Random House edition of Ulysses, McLuhan also used the back flyleaves and endpapers for his own topical indexes, which provide a picture of what interested him in the book and how he traced those interests to specific points in the text. See the article for images and more detailed examples.

In my follow-up presentation at NYU last week, I considered a question that’s been on my mind since completing the article: what if McLuhan had been doing his reading on the digital platforms we have today? How might his annotation practices have been different (or not)? And what would we be able to learn from digitally annotated books as sources of evidence? This last question in particular brings me back to the themes I’m exploring in my Veil of Code project.

To explore both questions — the first being about practices, the second about evidence — I experimented with different digital reading platforms, and attempted to mark up the opening of the Proteus episode in Ulysses the way McLuhan did in his 1961 Random House edition. For example, this image from my slides shows my inexact reproduction of McLuhan’s notes, using a Project Gutenberg PDF version of Ulysses and annotated using the default macOS Preview app:

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As you can see, it’s possible in Preview to add notes that aren’t anchored to a specific word or phrase in the text. There’s no such flexibility in the Kindle or Apple Books desktop apps. My guess is that McLuhan and any other skilled annotator would have found themselves fighting these interfaces. Sometimes a general, even vague thematic suggestion like “Lear” written next to a paragraph on the theme of vision can help spark ideas upon re-reading, and the spontaneous scribble remains an important part of being an annotating reader—at least for those using more permissive platforms like Preview.

However, for the purposes of my Veil of Code project and this blog, I’m more interested in what we can learn from the digital files that are generated by digital annotations. For example, one of the persistent and often unanswerable questions I had when reading McLuhan’s marginalia was when did he write this? His 1961 Random House Ulysses contains layers of marginalia which may have been written days or years apart, perhaps as part of focused re-reading with a project in mind, or simply in the course of revisiting Ulysses after a long absence. Marks on paper can tell us a lot, but they can’t answer these questions.

Digital marginalia can become a goldmine for answering questions like these. For example, if you annotate in Apple Books (formerly known as iBooks), you can locate a SQLite database file containing those annotations. It’s buried fairly deep in the system files, but it’s not inaccessible. On my MacBook Pro (running macOS Catalina v10.15.3) the file path is: Macintosh HD/Users/[username]/Library/Containers/ AEAnnotation_v10312011_1727_local.sqlite. Although I made my annotations on a DRM-protected ebook (the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Ulysses), the separate annotations database file isn’t encrypted, and can be viewed using open-source software like DB Browser for SQLite. Here’s a simplified view:Apple Books SQL db with annotations.png

Each row corresponds to an individual annotation, and each column (left to right) shows date created, date modified, note content, and the annotated text in the ebook. The database records other information about each note, but even these four data points would answer the when? question with precision, down to the second. (The timestamps look unreadable here only because they’re recorded in the Apple Cocoa Core Data format, which counts the number of seconds that have passed since midnight GMT on January 1, 2001; see this helpful site for an explanation and easy-to-use converter).

If you’re wondering why some of the notes repeat in the screenshot above, that’s a question that leads to the most interesting thing I discovered in this experiment. Not only does the Apple Books SQLite database record the precise moments of creation and modification for each annotation, it also retains a record of deleted notes. The repeated notes that read “touch” and “sign = miracle” in the screenshot above were created inadvertently by my creation and deletion of notes while getting my screenshots ready for my presentation slides. (You can even use the timestamp converter linked above to figure out exactly when I was doing it.) The final note (row 62) is one I added and then deleted from my Ulysses ebook in Apple Books, yet here it is preserved in the database.

I still need to profile how and when exactly deleted notes leave a trace in the Apple Books SQLite file. In any case it would be a remarkably rich source of evidence for a future historian who had access to an archived disc image of an annotating digital reader’s hard drive. (For real-world examples of this kind of research scenario, see Matt Kirschenbaum’s book Track Changes: a Literary History of Word Processing.) A database file like this would be immensely valuable to someone studying the reading habits of a particular reader. One wouldn’t even need to invest effort to create a query-friendly database of the annotations; the SQLite file already is a database, and can be searched and queried using software like DB Browser for SQLite, shown above.

Then again, even if we can know with absolute precision when a reader created or modified an annotation, or even read their deleted annotations, have we really learned what matters most about their acts of reading? Sometimes with fields like digital forensics, the volume of precise but narrowly focused evidence it can recover can lead us to overemphasize what’s available, and to neglect what we can’t see. McLuhan’s marginalia were part of a larger system of reading, and they point to ephemeral aspects of reading that can’t be materialized, yet were nonetheless real. For this reason, reading McLuhan’s annotated books at times feels like a window into his scholarly workshop, and at other times feels more like a mirror that reflects one’s own forensic impulses back onto the researcher, forcing a reckoning with the limits of evidence and the elusive nature of reading.

Looking back at the timestamps for my fake McLuhan annotations in the screenshot above, I’m reminded of the afternoon when I was experimenting with the Apple Books annotations, in preparation for the Reading McLuhan Reading symposium. Taking a break, I walked my dog, Boomer, around Toronto’s Wychwood Park neighbourhood, not  far from my home, where McLuhan happened to have lived while he taught at the University of Toronto. Walking past the old McLuhan house, I thought of the strange and sometimes unhealthy obsession that some of the hardcore McLuhanites seem to have with his legacy, and wondered if any still make pilgrimages to the house looking for some kind of special insight. As we were walking, I also thought back to two readings I’d been revisiting for the NYU presentation, John Durham Peters’s book The Marvelous Clouds (mentioned above), which considers nature as media, and Jody Berland’s article in the “Many McLuhans or None at All” special issue, titled “McLuhan and Posthumanism: Extending the Techno-Animal Embrace,” which draws on the field of animal studies to reconsider McLuhan’s ideas about the senses. (By coincidence, Boomer sometimes plays with Jody’s dog at the nearby dog park; Toronto is a small world sometimes.)

All this prompted a reflection on media and what one might call the ineluctable modality of the recoverable. McLuhan, of course, is best known for drawing attention to the ways media reconfigure relationships between the senses and knowledge. While I had spent the afternoon looking for answers about McLuhan’s reading in manuscript and digital annotations, Boomer was busy picking up myriad scents and signals from the days-old snowbanks in McLuhan’s old neighbourhood. As dog owners know, a simple walk in the park can be a powerful lesson in how our most important companion animals (sorry, cats) experience the same space but a different world thanks to their differently balanced senses—especially the sense of smell, which has strong links to memory and the past. On that quiet winter afternoon, who could say which of us was more in tune with their own sensorium, and which was the better reader of the faint traces of those who went before?

My money’s on the dog… look at that nose.


Boomer, an olfactory forensics expert, with the McLuhan house in Toronto’s Wychwood Park in the background.