Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing“But Sycorax comes to me in a dream and she dreams me a Macintosh computer with its winking io hiding in its margins which, as you know, are not really margins, but electronic accesses to Random Memory and the Cosmos and the Iwa.” – poet Kamau Brathwaite on his writing process in a 2001 interview

Since the invention of the typewriter, the act of authors putting the QWERTY layout to use remained relatively unchanged for decades. Mistyping, strikethroughs, Wite-Out, the zip of a manual carriage return and the need to be relatively linear was the order of the day. And then a sea change – the advent of the personal computer and the word processor.

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s new book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing details that history through a unique lens – the changes the computer revolution wrought on the process of writing itself. Authors found themselves grappling with workflow changes like the ease of revision. With one CTRL-X/CTRL-V combination, the meaning of an entire manuscript could change (or be lost due to a failed, non-backed up floppy or hard drive). One one end of the spectrum, George R.R. Martin’s PC running DOS and WordStar 4.0 provides focus, a blinking cursor and a minimum of distractions. At the other, authors leapt wholeheartedly into modern descendants of inspirations like the cut-up technique popularized by William Burroughs, feeding off of bizarre mashups and Markov text generators, changes in form and presentation and experiments in works that even had a built-in expiration date.

“I had a couple of different laptops because they were not all that dependable, and one of them had a slider bar. I could slide the screen brightness down to almost nothing, so I was sitting in complete darkness. The screen would have just the tiniest hint of phosphorescence and a faint crackle of static electricity. I thought, ‘This is an option Dickens did not have.'” – Nicholson Baker on writing

Put Track Changes on hold today!