There is nothing like getting your Masters in English Literature to make you feel like an illiterate charlatan. Before starting the Public Texts program last September, I had always assumed that I was fairly well-read, but my time as a graduate has taught me that there’s always room for improvement.
While I realize that many of you are likely much more cultured than I can ever aspire to be (I don’t begrudge you for it, I swear, not in the slightest, and now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just be over here, gritting my teeth and weeping quietly into a pillow), for those of you who are little less confident about your literary prowess and who’d like to avoid the harrowing and
slightly mortifying experience of having to admit that your knowledge of Marshall McLuhan extends no further than what you were able to glean from a Heritage Minutes commercial that used air on the CBC back in the 90s and early 2000s (true story, my face still turns bright red whenever I think about it), here’s a very short list of books that you might want to skim through this summer before starting up in the fall:
1. McLuhan for Beginners by W. Terrence Gordon and/or Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan
Let’s start with the man of the hour himself, Marshall McLuhan. Apparently it’s not enough to be vaguely familiar with his name, you should also know a bit about his theories and his contributions to fields of media and communications, who knew?
Although you may end up reading some McLuhan’s work in the core course as we did last semester, in my opinion, you wouldn’t go amiss by doing a little prep in advance.
Mark Federman, chief strategist of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, has a really great article on how to approach McLuhan’s writings that served me well when I was trying to find out the order in which I should be reading them. He recommends (and I strongly echo this recommendation) starting with W. Terrence Gordon’s McLuhan for Beginners, an introductory / biographical work “officially […] sanctioned by the McLuhan family” that is designed for a “novice McLuhanist” and covers his key concepts and ideas in a condensed, but highly approachable way, before easing yourself into Culture is Our Business and then moving on to the “harder stuff” like From Cliché to Archetype and The Medium is the Massage.
Federman actually suggests reading Understanding Media last; however, if you’re already familiar with the basics of McLuhan’s work or if you’re feeling adventurous, you might want to start there, given that it’s the one that usually namechecked the most.
2. Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
This book gets referenced a lot! Honestly, it was mentioned in so many articles and brought up so often in class that I started to think that people were getting paid to talk about it… then I read it and I realized that it was extremely relevant to a lot of the discussions that we were having about publics and identity. I regret not picking it up sooner. So, learn from my mistakes, young Padawan, and give it a glance if you’ve got the time this summer, not only will you get a lot out of it, but you’ll be able to nod sagely each time it comes up in conversation, rather than have to stare into your lap and pray that no one asks you about it (another true and very sad story).
3. Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series / Key subjects: Barthes, Bourdieu, Foucault, Habermas, etc.
The Very Short Introductions series is my ‘go-to’ source when I’m trying to read up on a new subject or when I just need a bit of a refresher on an author and his theories. If you’ve never come across Very Short Introductions before, the best way to describe it is as a more highbrow version of the For Dummies series.
Again, you’re likely going to be reading selections from most of the writers that I’ve listed above, but it’s good to get a head start, especially if you’re not too familiar with postmodernism or poststructuralism or any of those other post-isms that always seem to come up in conversation.
4. Whatever you feel like!
I know that this is ridiculous and extremely corny way to end a list on what to read in order to prepare yourself for graduate studies, but it is the summer after all and you’ll have enough mandatory reading to slog through when the semester begins, so why not indulge yourself in the meantime?