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How the word processor changed literature

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"Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing," an upcoming book by Professor Matthew Kirschenbaum, will cover the first authors to use word processors and how they saw the tool in relation to their work.

Stephen King's Wang Poster
Stephen King's Wang Poster

In 1983, Stephen King published "The Word Processor," which hinged on the ability of the device to insert or delete words without leaving a trace. According to Professor Matthew Kirschenbaum, the story — perhaps the first to use the word processor as a plot point — reflects how the machine allowed the author to literally "play God," creating fully-formed documents without the messiness of visible edits. Kirschenbaum's Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, scheduled for publication in 2013, will explore the impact of word processing on King and other early adopters, uncovering which authors were the first to use the technology and how it may have shaped their writing.

Kirschenbaum, recently profiled in the New York Times, sees his book as a continuation of other research on the history of writing implements like the typewriter. But while typewritten pages can at least be easily read if they're found, the ephemeral nature of word processing makes it particularly difficult to get early examples of it. Frank Herbert, for example, allegedly submitted work in the '70s on 8-inch floppy disks, but the data on them would be difficult to recover even if they were ever found. This makes it difficult to tell who was the first to use the word processor.

In addition to acquiring and refurbishing dozens of ancient machines for his work, Kirschenbaum has gained access to Microsoft's corporate archive, where he hopes to find the origin of spell-check, change tracking, and other features we now take for granted. He's also put out a call for sources on his blog. There's plenty more about his project at the links below, including full audio of a recent talk at the New York Public Library.