The Literary History of Word Processing

Fun article from the New York Times: “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute.” (thanks ropaterny and jmendelsohn for the sharing the cool article)

I’m looking forward to checking out Matthew Kirschenbaum’s upcoming book, “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing” — among other things, it’s fun to think about the mix of authors that come up when talking about the literary history of word processing (including the likes of Mark Twain, Henry James, and Bram Stoker).

But maybe the most interesting bit of information from the article was about Stephen King —

“Mr. King’s 1983 short story “The Word Processor,” Mr. Kirschenbaum ventured, is “likely the earliest fictional treatment of word processing by a prominent English-language author.”

The story, published in Playboy (later retitled “Word Processor of the Gods”), certainly captured the unsettling ghostliness of the new technology, which allowed writers to correct themselves without leaving even the faintest trace. In the story a frustrated schoolteacher discovers that by erasing sentences about his enemies he can delete them entirely from the universe and insert himself in their place, a reflection of Mr. King’s fascination with his Wang System 5’s “insert,” ”delete” and “execute” keys, recounted in the introduction to his 1985 story collection, “Skeleton Crew.” “Writers are used to playing God, but suddenly now the metaphor was literal,” Mr. Kirschenbaum said in the lecture.”

Studying the means (mechanical, digital, etc.) by which literature is produced is an incredibly interesting topic. And I especially appreciated this nifty bit of Nietzsche trivia:

“The study of word processing may sound like a peculiarly tech-minded task for an English professor, but literary scholars have become increasingly interested in studying how the tools of writing both shape literature and are reflected in it, whether it’s the quill pen of the Romantic poets or the early round typewriter, known as a writing ball, that Friedrich Nietzsche used to compose some aphoristic fragments. (“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Nietzsche typed.)”

Nietzsche even wrote a poem about his writing ball

“The Writing Ball is a thing just like me: of iron
And yet easy to twist, especially on journeys.
Patience and tact one must richly possess
And fine little fingers to use us.”

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By the way — did this article remind anyone else of Foucault’s Pendulum?

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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