How to Choose a Novel: Read Page 69

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The Marshall McLuhan Test

Marshall McLuhan, (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980) was a Canadian philosopher of communication theory. His work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory, as well as having practical applications in the advertising and television industries.[1][2] McLuhan is known for coining the expressions the medium is the message and the global village, and for predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before it was invented. (from wikipedia).

I came across the so-called Marshall McLuhan test while reading and browsing through the Guardian web page. Charlotte Stretch mentions it in her post on the Guardian’s books blog. She refers to John Sutherland, who asks in his book How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide how we choose which books to read since there are so many novels, new ones being published every day? Our time is limited. Even if we spent all of it reading… I once calculated how many books I could manage to read in the rest of my remaining days if I, say, for example, read two 300 pagers a week.

Not worth mentioning.

Marshall McLuhan, though known for slightly more significant work in the field of philosophy and communication, suggested to move to page 69 when browsing through a novel to decide if one felt it worth reading: if you liked it, read on, if not, toss it. Why page 69 might not be totally explicable, but I found it to be a good choice: it is far enough into the novel, but still fairly close to the beginning (unless the book has only 120 pages, in which case you could pick page 43). Beginnings of books are often not representative of what is to come. I have often not gotten over the first 10, 20 pages. You also don’t want to pick a page too far to the end, it should be in the phase before the climax of a narrative.

Charlotte Stretch put this to the test and wrote about it on the Guardian’s books blog in 2008. I did it myself in some of my classes, just for the fun of it and to introduce books of my own liking to my students. This one page also gave us the chance to see if the language of the respective novel was o.k. for their language level: not too much ‘fancy’ vocabulary and not too easy: a slight but still enjoyable challenge.

What I also do sometimes, instead of picking the random page 69, is to make a conscious choice of a page from a fairly well-known novel which gives the group the chance to guess where it is from, similar to my ‘Guess the Classic’ exercise. In the following, you will find a brief exerpt from such a novel. Do you recognize it?

A sudden silence hit the Earth. If anything it was worse than the noise. For a while nothing happened. The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

And still nothing happened. Then there was a slight whisper, a sudden spacious whisper of open ambient sound. Every hi fi set in the world, every radio, every television, every cassette recorder, every woofer, every tweeter, every mid-range driver in the world quietly turned itself on. Every tin can, every dust bin, every window, every car, every wine glass, every sheet of rusty metal became activated as an acoustically perfect sounding board. Before the Earth passed away it was going to be treated to the very ultimate in sound reproduction, the greatest public address system ever built. But there was no concert, no music, no fanfare, just a simple message.

“People of Earth, your attention please, ” a voice said, and it was wonderful. Wonderful perfect quadrophonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.

“This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council, ” the voice continued. “As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you. ”

The PA died away. Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. The terror moved slowly through the gathered crowds as if they were iron fillings on a sheet of board and a magnet was moving beneath them. Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to.

Observing this, the Vogons turned on their PA again. It said: “There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”

The PA fell silent again and its echo drifted off across the land. The huge ships turned slowly in the sky with easy power. On the underside of each a hatchway opened, an empty black space.

By this time somebody somewhere must have manned a radio transmitter, located a wavelength and broadcasted a message back to the Vogon ships, to plead on behalf of the planet. Nobody ever heard what they said, they only heard the reply. The PA slammed back into life again. The voice was annoyed. It said:

“What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven’s sake mankind, it’s only four light years away you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout. “Energize the demolition beams. ”

Light poured out into the hatchways. “I don’t know, ” said the voice on the PA, “apathetic bloody planet, I’ve no sympathy at all. ” It cut off. There was a terrible ghastly silence. There was a terrible ghastly noise. There was a terrible ghastly silence. The Vogon Constructor fleet coasted away into the inky starry void.

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