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Ideas | Craig Fehrman

The qwerty history of the word processor

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Sometimes recent historY is the hardest to see. Consider the computer and its word processing software — programs like Microsoft Word that allow us to write letters or resumes or, for professional authors (or just aspiring ones), novels. Word processors have become so popular that they can seem simultaneously essential and mundane.

In his new book, “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” Matthew Kirschenbaum shows that word processing was once considered radical, empowering, even frightening and strange. English professors often study the ways in which old books were produced, distributed, and consumed. Now Kirschenbaum has turned that investigation to our own era — or to an era just before ours, the 1980s, when word processing and personal computing first caught on.

To rediscover the recent past, Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, hunted for forgotten computer magazines on eBay; he booted up old computers and even older standalone word processors to re-create the experiences of their earliest users. At first, this technology drew plenty of skeptics, particularly in the literary community. (“The idea of literature,” Gore Vidal wrote in 1984, “is being erased by the word processor.”) But Kirschenbaum reveals that word processing not only created fresh possibilities but also revived things we associate with more classic forms of writing. In both cases, he reminds us just how quickly we came to accept this new (and now essential) approach.

Kirschenbaum spoke to Ideas by phone. Below is an edited excerpt.


IDEAS: Do you remember your first computer?

KIRSCHENBAUM: I remember it well. In fact, I still have it in my office. It’s an Apple IIe, and it still boots. We got that computer — it was the family computer — in the early ’80s, when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t really take to the programming side like some of my friends. Instead, I used it for two other things: I played games with it, and I wrote with it.

IDEAS: When did you realize word processing was a good topic for an English professor?

KIRSCHENBAUM: One of the commonplaces you absorb as a graduate student is that Mark Twain was the first person to use a typewriter — he called it a type machine — for a work of literature, “Life on the Mississippi.” About five years ago, I realized I didn’t know who would be Twain’s counterpart with the word processor. But firsts are always relative. Much depended on how you define terms like “write” and “word processor,” and I found several different candidates, including Jerry Pournelle, John Hersey, and Len Deighton.


IDEAS: Where did those names come from?

KIRSCHENBAUM: There was no one source. I spent time in traditional archives, going to Harvard’s Houghton Library and looking through [John] Updike’s papers, using his fonts to identify when he transitioned into word processing. I talked to dozens of writers and people on the tech side. And I actually had my own collection of old vintage computers — not just the Apple IIe but a couple dozen other machines. I tried to quite literally put myself in the shoes of an author at that time.

IDEAS: What did those early authors feel when they encountered this new technology?

KIRSCHENBAUM: The phrase they used again and again was “writing with light.” There was a sense of wonder, sitting in front of a piece of glass and typing and having your writing appear in luminescent letters. But there was another side of word processing — the physical quality. Early computers were big and noisy. They threw off heat. You had to learn how to handle floppy disks and change printer ribbons.


IDEAS: Despite those complications, many literary figures worried that word processing made writing too easy.

KIRSCHENBAUM: It’s really hard to generalize about the response, but there were all kinds of anxieties. The key word here is perfection. Word processing created a very effective illusion of the perfect page. But that meant all material traces of the author’s labor were absent. There was a fear that the word processor would seduce young writers into thinking the work was done simply because it looked nice on the page. At the Johns Hopkins MFA program, for instance, they started getting applications done on word processors. It was prejudicial to the applicants — there was a sense they hadn’t sweated over it the way you have to sweat over a typewriter.

IDEAS: For all the fretting over authenticity, you point out that writing on a computer feels closer to writing by hand than writing by typewriter.

KIRSCHENBAUM: When you’re typing on a traditional typewriter, it’s a very literal process. You press one key at a time. You can’t even see the whole page. On a typewriter, writing and editing are two very different activities, correction tape notwithstanding. But with a pen and paper, you can lift your pen and move anywhere. That’s the way we use a mouse pointer. Today, writing and revision are seamless activities for most of us. When it was pen and paper, we crossed things out, drew arrows, bounced around. And that’s pretty much the way word processing works, too.


IDEAS: Has the rise of word processing changed our prose?

KIRSCHENBAUM: Literary style is something that’s really hard to isolate or to think about systematically. But there are certainly commonalities of experience. One is the emphasis on revision — the way one can revise prose again and again. Sometimes this is pejoratively referred to as overwriting. But Joan Didion said writing on a computer is “like sculpture, where you start with a block of something and then start shaping it.” That’s similar to the way I write, roughing in a paragraph with the key details and then going back to it later. This sense of sculpture suggests a relationship to the text that’s new or different — and enhanced or reinforced through word processing.

IDEAS: And yet word processors also allow for speed. After all, Tom Clancy owned an Apple IIe, as well.

KIRSCHENBAUM: Certainly the emphasis on speed and productivity was important to a lot of the early adopters. As a general rule, word processing initially had a wider uptake among genre writers and popular writers. It would help you get out the two or three novels a year.

IDEAS: So a word processor can lead to speed or to sculpture — ultimately it depends on the writer using it.

KIRSCHENBAUM: Writing is a very intimate activity, and we tend to associate certain objects and technologies with it. Computers are no different. We think of computers as impersonal, mass-produced electronics. Nonetheless, writers cultivate their own individual and deeply idiosyncratic relationships to their computers and word processors. The computer has become an intimate object for writers. I mean, how could it not? They spend hours in front of that screen, in a very constrained space. The computer has become every bit as personal and resonant as a favorite fountain pen or a beat-up Royal Typewriter.


Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail craig.fehrman@gmail.com.