Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, presents 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. Authors whose word-processing experiences or philosophies are mentioned include Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, and Amy Tan, among others. While some were stricken with concerns about perfectionism and automation, others (particularly in science fiction) embraced the ability to collaborate and the time-saving printing and revision functions. Kirschenbaum takes an academic approach to his subject, with lots of research into the mechanics of now-obsolete technology (IBM's Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST), WordStar, Kaypro, etc.). The book is more scholarly than entertaining, but will also appeal to lay readers interested in the impact of technology on culture. (May)
One of Kirschenbaum’s strengths is his ability to draw out the extent to which computerized writing technologies have embedded themselves into our very being, as we can only imagine other writing revolutions once did.
Financial Times - Thomas Hale
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.
Dublin Review of Books - Tim Groenland
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.
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
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.
American Literary History - Jessica Pressman
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.
The Australian - Andrew McMillen
Eye-opening…I found the book enlarged my sense of what had occurred during the course of my adult literary career.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Lucy Ferriss
[An] unexpectedly engaging history of word processing.
The Guardian - Brian Dillon
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 processorbut 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.
Times Higher Education - John Gilbey
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.
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.
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.
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.
Boston Globe - Craig Fehrman
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.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Dylan Hicks
In his newest book, Kirschenbaum (English, Univ. of Maryland; Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination) aligns literary art with information processing machines (computers) to create a history of word processing. To accomplish this goal, Kirschenbaum combines two lines of inquiry: the history of multigenre prose (mostly American) along with that writing as it was produced and affected by word processing. Covering such obsolete technologies as the TRS-80 Model I and the Zeke/Z-80 Zeke-II, the author acknowledges that the embrace of technology in writing happened across genres in surprising ways. There are notable examples of John Updike and his Wang processor; Stephen King also briefly relied on one, while Ralph Ellison used Wordstar and George R.R. Martin famously still uses it. These instances are also contextualized as signifiers of the culture's general adoption of personal computers in writing and the office environ. The program and the network changed the nature of work and the aesthetic of writing from the point of view of the author. These are a fraction of the larger cultural issues touched upon in Kirschenbaum's narrative. VERDICT 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, Metamedia Management, LLC, Washington, DC
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.