- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press (May 2, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674417070
- ISBN-13: 978-0674417076
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #581,166 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
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Culling from specialized publications, mainstream journalism, and author interviews, Kirschenbaum recaptures the excitement and optimism writers often felt in the face of this magical new technology. To many, word processing seemed to promise a new possibility for aesthetic perfection. (Dylan Hicks Los Angeles Review of Books 2016-04-14)
Word processors have become so popular that they can seem simultaneously essential and mundane… Kirschenbaum shows that word processing was once considered radical, empowering, even frightening and strange. (Craig Fehrman Boston Globe 2016-05-05)
As Kirschenbaum’s history reminds us, the story of personal computers supplanting older systems dedicated to word processing…was hardly the fait accompli that we sometimes think it was. His book attempts a full literary history of this shift. To do so, he ranges across a number of phenomena. (Eric Banks Bookforum 2016-04-01)
A learned and lively study of the sometimes‐uneasy fit between writing on a computer and writing generally…As Kirschenbaum rightly notes, literature is ‘different after word processing,’ and so is literary history. He makes a solid start in showing how. (Kirkus Reviews 2016-04-01)
Kirschenbaum aligns literary art with information processing machines (computers) to create a history of word processing…For readers interested in the history of the production of writing as well as those who appreciate the finer tech‐related facts that have fallen out of popular memory. (Jesse A. Lambertson Library Journal 2016-05-01)
A well-researched, scholarly history of how early electronic typewriters, word processors, and microprocessor-based computers affected literary writers, the act of writing, and writers’ plots, characters, literary devices, and stories from 1964 to 1984. The book includes numerous examples of how specific authors thought about, wrote about, experimented with, and used early word-processing machines. (Publishers Weekly 2016-04-22)
Track Changes is delightful, magisterial, and instantly essential. Kirschenbaum unimpeachably delivers on his promise to give an account of word processing in all its wonderful messiness and complication. In his lively attention to storytelling, Kirschenbaum offers an account that brims over with interest and surprise. (Matthew Battles, author of The Library: An Unquiet History and Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word)
Track Changes is a revelation. Through careful documentation of the relationships between dozens of popular writers and their respective hardware and software, Kirschenbaum brings the materiality of contemporary writing into sudden, startling focus. After reading this book, you will never be able to ignore your keyboard again. (Darren Wershler, author of The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting)
Key to the success of Track Changes is Kirschenbaum’s knack of drawing out the relationship between writers and how they adopted, and adapted to, the new tools…In many respects this book is an engaging, extended love letter to the word processor―but it is much more than that. It is an impressively researched record of a radical, perhaps uniquely creative, chapter in the often turbulent relationship between technology and the written word. (John Gilbey Times Higher Education 2016-05-26)
[An] unexpectedly engaging history of word processing. (Brian Dillon The Guardian 2016-07-02)
Eye-opening…I found the book enlarged my sense of what had occurred during the course of my adult literary career. (Lucy Ferriss Chronicle of Higher Education 2016-06-01)
In this outstanding book, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum decodes the relationship writers have had with word processing technology since the literary world began to shift from typewriters to the personal computer. If this subject matter sounds dry, happily it is anything but in the pages of Track Changes…There is much here to excite the literary-minded. (Andrew McMillen The Australian 2016-08-27)
Track Changes is as much a mediation on how history (and media history more specifically) is written as it is a history of writing with word-processing technologies… This is a material history and materialist study that illuminates the cultural contexts for digital tools…Track Changes opens up new focal points for exploring histories of literature, media, and more…It explores some of the tracks left to us from the recent history of using computers to write. Reading these traces through Kirschenbaum’s astute media archaeology, we see how this book inspires us to look differently at computer history as a rich site for understanding the contemporary literary moment. (Jessica Pressman American Literary History 2016-10-01)
It’s always an unsettling and amazing feeling to read the history of a series of events you watched unfold in real time in your own life, and that’s a part of what makes Matthew Kirschenbaum’s history of relatively short lifetime of word processing so fascinating: if you’re online right now, the chances are very good that you’ve experienced many of the changes detailed in this book personally, and Kirschenbaum writes it all with an infectious flair. (Steve Donoghue Open Letters Monthly 2016-12-27)
The sustained attention [the book] pays to the social and material bases of writing reveals a usually hidden network of contemporary writing practices and opens up new possibilities for thinking about the relationship between (word) process and product. (Tim Groenland Dublin Review of Books 2016-12-01)
About the Author
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park.
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Top Customer Reviews
The book delivers what it promises: a scholarly but readable overview of how word-processor technology has been adopted (or not) by authors of various genres; word processors' widely varying effects, positive and negative, on the craft of those writers, as reported by the writers themselves; and its impacts, positive and negative, on literature scholarship. For example, if modern Track Changes features are turned on, or if using cloud-basde document processors like Google Docs that effectively track revisions explicitly and automatically, scholars of literature have a new goldmine of detailed instrumentation of the writer at work; but for earlier word processors lacking such features (basically any word processor before the late 1980s), author "manuscripts" (document files) reflect only the final product, without any of the crossings-out or margin annotations that have made historical handwritten manuscripts (no longer a redundant phrase!) such as the USA's founding documents such a compelling window into the workings of the authors' minds. Indeed, because of legacy computer issues and the limited life of magnetic media, some such manuscripts have become permanently inaccessible.
I learned quite a bit, and I manage to forgive the author's periodic indulgence in wordplay that seems intended to test your erudition (or prove his) rather than illuminate a point—an academic writing habit I dislike, and I say that as an academic myself. For example, although it seems obvious in retrospect, I had always assumed professional writers would be among the earliest to adopt such a "power tool" for writing (I've done a nontrivial amount of professional writing myself), and at the same time, as a student of computing history I have always known that word processing technology was always targeted not at such professionals but at an office environment, for memos, letters, and business documents. Merely putting those facts together suddenly makes it more interesting to ask how professional writers adopted this technology.
What I learned was that many didn't, and that among those who did (or tried to) there was a wide range of attitudes towards how and whether it improved or otherwise modified their writing process and quantity of output, and whether it fundamentally enabled new ways of approaching writing (for better or worse) that would be impossible with typewriters or pen-and-paper. For example, you can use search-and-replace to change the name of a character throughout a novel, you can insert and delete and move chunks of text around freely, and so on. (The author points out that "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" is an example of the kind of work that is unique to the word-processor age.) A number of quotations and interview excerpts from professional writers ranging from John Updike to Stephen King made the observations concrete and illustrated the range of perspectives and observations that different writers brought to the technology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pop fiction and science fiction authors were among the earliest adopters (though even sci-fi writers who adopted the technology early failed to predict its soon-to-be ubiquity in their visionary novels), and belles-lettres authors among the longest holdouts. As the author does a nice job of describing, of course, typewriters elicited many of the same controversies and polarizing views in their own turn, especially as the earliest models (e.g. Twain's Remington #1) didn't allow the typist to see the text as it was being printed on the page.
Another item in the category of something I always knew, but never connected to its impact on professional writing: using a word processor on the one hand _separates_ the act of composition from the act of fixing something in tangible form (printing, typing) in both time and space (you can print later than you write, and the printer may be in another room), but on the other hand _blurs_ the boundary between composition and revision/editing, which are necessarily separate operations when working with a typewriter or handwritten text. As well, by offering options such as font changes and other formatting, word processors bring layout and typography potentially within the author's purview; some authors embraced this additional freedom and made it part of their work, others resented the extra learning effort required to navigate a "feature" they had pretty well been able to do without in the past, and yet others have embraced new "minimalist" word processors that have emerged as a reaction to feature-bloat and whose user interfaces hearken back to the days of WordPerfect for DOS, which presented the writer with a featureless blank screen and blinking cursor when a new document was opened.
A particularly interesting chapter is devoted to the "gender-ness" of word processing, which from the start was aimed at secretaries, who at the time of the technology's emergence were still overwhelmingly female. The idea was to double down on the concept of the typing pool: rather than being a peripatetic do-whatever-is-necessary executive assistant, there would be specialized secretaries who would master the learning curve of word processing and compartmentalize this specific function. I didn't realize that one of the early dedicated word processors was developed by a female engineer who started her own company to manufacture and market it, and ran an advertisement aimed squarely at secretaries in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine.
Some of the material that focuses on the history of the technology itself will be familiar to students of the history of computing: for example, even as Xerox PARC was demonstrating the first functional GUI (on the Xerox Alto research prototype) and first WYSIWYG word processor (Bravo), commercial offerings didn't offer a mouse-and-windows interface but one in which the affordances were "hidden" behind nonobvious control-key combinations that made for a steep learning curve for those new to computing. For those who don't know this history, the author does a good job telling both stories and juxtaposing them in time.
I also learned that I am still a philistine when it comes to appreciating literary conceptual art. Publishing the text of classic works as viewed through Word AutoSummary, a text consisting of Wite-Out used to overpaint the letters of an existing work, or verbatim transcripts of arbitrary ephemeral texts like traffic reports to "reflect the effortless contemporary duplication and proliferation of texts wiothout regard for the volume and mass of words"—sorry, to me those things are just silly. (And as an academic and an artist, I'm willing to give substantial benefit of the doubt, but it was bemusing to hear that these products are presumably worthy of the term "art".)
There is a lot here for writers who have an interest in how technology has affected the history of their profession (and conversely), and what their fellow writers have had to say about its effect on their craft. It's not an easy read, but if these topics interest you, it's a well constructed one.
Computer History Museum
Kirschenbaum opens by referencing one of the pop cultural touchstones of our time: 'Game of Thrones' — or, more specifically, 'A Song of Ice and Fire', the fantasy novels by American author George RR Martin on which the popular television series is based. As he told a talk show host in 2014, Martin chooses to write his books on a DOS-era computer with no internet connection, using an ancient program called WordStar. Describing this combination as his “secret weapon”, owing to its lack of distraction and isolation from any threat of a computer virus, the author also credits WordStar with his long-running productivity.
By opening with the work habits of a megaselling author and then travelling back in time, chapter by chapter, to the emerging typewriter-based storage technology of the late 1960s, Kirschenbaum eases the reader into a dazzlingly rich and absorbing history.
It is fascinating to note the reluctance with which computer-based word processing was first viewed by the publishing industry. Some writers were so wary of being outed as early adopters that they chose not to disclose their new toys to their employers, or even went to the lengths of having their finished manuscripts rewritten using typewriters before submission.
Although screen size and small memory capacities caused early concerns and frustrations, it was not long before science-fiction writers, in particular, thrilled to the ability to gain greater control over their text, as well as being freed from the tedium of retyping work. Kirschenbaum quotes a Harvard physicist who came to a realisation in the early 80s: “We all knew computers were coming, but what astonishes us is it’s not the scientists but the word people who have taken them up first.”
Once bestselling writers such as Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett adopted word processors and publicly noted the significant improvements in their productivity, it seemed there would be no turning back. As the technology matured, computers and their inner workings became a source of inspiration for writers, too: the likes of William Gibson’s 'Neuromancer', which popularised the word ‘‘cyberspace’’, for example.
'Track Changes' is based on five years of research and the author’s academic bent can be seen in the 80 pages of detailed notes that follow the narrative text, but never in the prose itself. This is a remarkable achievement. For a project that seems geared toward stuffiness, Kirschenbaum’s writing sparkles with well-chosen anecdotes and a keen sense of humour.
His enthusiasm for the topic is palpable. After a section profiling thriller author James Patterson, whose occasional media nickname is ‘‘The Word Processor’’ — owing to his prodigious output, produced alongside a half-dozen close collaborators — he wonders what type of technology The Word Processor himself runs. “Surely it must be a mighty one!” Kirschenbaum suggests, before revealing the answer: “He works his stacks of manuscripts longhand. How perfect is that?”
For the author, this subject is intertwined with his own experiences as a writer, naturally enough. It is dedicated to his parents, “who brought home an Apple”, and he notes in the preface that the book itself was written “mostly in [Microsoft] Word, on a couple of small, lightweight laptops”. The book is named for the incredibly helpful feature in Word that allows readers to see the revision history and minute variations between different versions of documents during the editing process. The origin of this feature is only addressed directly in the final chapter, where Kirschenbaum also writes:
"Writers live with and within their word processors, and thus with and within the system’s logics and constraints — these themselves become part of the daily lived experience of the writers’ working hours, as predictable and proximate as the squeak of a chair or that certain shaft of sunlight that makes its way across the room."
As that illustrates, the author has a way with words, not just an appreciation for how they are processed. The final paragraph is a thing of immense beauty, too, and may bring a tear to the eye of anyone who has sat and watched as fingertip pressure applied to a keyboard instantly became words processed on a screen.
Review originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 27 2016: [...]