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TRACK CHANGES by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum


A Literary History of Word Processing

by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-674-41707-6
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

A learned and lively study of the sometimes-uneasy fit between writing on a computer and writing generally.

John Updike, some of whose garbage—literally—just went up for auction, may have been the last major American author to leave a “vast paper trail, possibly the last of its kind,” in the words of biographer Adam Begley. His successors leave, instead, an evanescent electronic trail. The effect on literary study is just beginning to be felt; enter Kirschenbaum (English/Univ. of Maryland; Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, 2008, etc.). Though a full taxonomy of the stylistic changes wrought by the computer has yet to be published, Kirschenbaum does a good job of hinting at lines for future research. Moreover, his here-and-now study is useful in showing how word processing spread from the realm of science fiction into that of general literature, introduced by the likes of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and especially Douglas Adams and slowly adopted by the mainstream. Even then, as Kirschenbaum shows, some writers who might have been expected to take to computers resisted. David Foster Wallace, to name one, preferred composing in longhand and then transcribing onto the computer; he also “deliberately eras[ed] rejected passages from his hard drive so as not to be tempted to restore them to the manuscript later on.” Computer sleuthing nonetheless helped bring the posthumous Pale King into being, as it did some of the late work of Frank Herbert. Kirschenbaum observes that word processing as a literary subject comprises “a statistically exceptional form of writing that has accounted for only a narrow segment of the historical printing and publishing industry.” This would seem obvious, given the newness of the gear, but the author deepens that account with cross-technological looks at typewriting (shades of William Burroughs) and other compositional media—including tape, “the medium that initially defined word processing.”

Materiality, information, and absence: as Kirschenbaum rightly notes, literature is “different after word processing,” and so is literary history. He makes a solid start in showing how.