Marshall McLuhan is perhaps one of the most influential authors I have read along with Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and Eliphas Levi. What McLuhan does like the authors stated is not explain in descriptive terms the media, but process oriented direction of experience. I will explain that momentarily.
This book, "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" is by far McLuhan's greatest book. It is set up like any useful text with the first part being the theory, while the second part contains the practice. He explains in the theoretical part that media is the extension of man. That all things created by man have come from man's own experience. This is like a dream, in one sense, where one must determine at some point that they are creators of the dream, and therefore, all content of the dream must apply to the dreamer's existence, and no one elses. Likewise, all inventions and discoveries are aspects of human dimensions that have been created by man, and therefore must come from man's inner experiences. These inventions are ultimately what McLuhan calls extensions, as they extend our human capacity for that movement or experience. The foot can travel so fast, while the tire is the extension of the foot, and therefore can move at a much higher rate of speed than the foot.
It seems that the most confusing aspect of McLuhan's theories is the idea of content versus context. The assumption of media study is to psychologize advertisments or the like. This way of approach is far from his point. He says, "My own way of approaching the media is perceptual not conceptual." What he is saying is that he uses his senses to gain understanding of the media, not theoretical concepts. This is what I mean about process oriented experience, where McLuhan discusses the experience one has by, say watching television, the mode of thought one has, the patterns of thought and behavior created by television.
In other words, we become the media that we have been shaped by in our culture and time. The spoken word, the written word and the telegraph, McLuhan noted, has had the largest impact on our society. Not because of their usefulness, or whether they work or not, but because society has patterned themselves after the respective media. Are not we becoming a computerized society? Does this mean we have lots of computers that run things? Or are the people becoming computer like in their behavoir and thinking? The latter expresses more accurately McLuhan's ideas.
The second part runs over a select group of specific media and their implications on the human mind. The context in which they were placed in is by far the most important aspect as it predicts when a new media might arise. All media have their logical origins. If one determine the state of the world now, as it is, one can determine the way of the media. McLuhan discusses the written and printed word, automobile, telegraph, aeroplanes, bikes, routes, newspapers, automation, games, weapons, and many others that make for a highly evocative read.
Is McLuhan a modern mystic? It might be a heavy title for some. If one reads well enough into his work, they may get the sense he is not talking about media at all.
Understanding McLuhan's approach is about upsetting the whole sensory environment. The appeal McLuhan has had on the ages from 1964, when the book was published, is in his aphorism, "Media is the message." This little phrase scratched many heads. Most of McLuhan's writings are like this. It is not about explaining it, but involving the reader to think for himself. To evoke, as in, evocative. So the conclusions must be the readers choice, either by intuition, study, assumption, or first hand experience. One thing is for certain, if you take the time to read the book twice, it will be different than the first read.
I can say, "if you only read one book..." but those that read this book are usually of the literate group. But for me, this book has not been an informative text, but a work book, a guide, an insightful prayer book, a reference, a resource, a magical text. I cannot reccomend this book highly enough.