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  • Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
  • Vincent Haddad (bio)
Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 368, 22 illustrations. $29.95 cloth.

Given word processing's integral function in today's writing process, it is surprising that a comprehensive history of it and its relationship to literary production had not been undertaken before Matthew G. Kirschenbaum's Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. Of course, many important studies have considered the shifting relationships between writing, reading, and technology, as these shifts have been at the root of both Luddite hand-wringing over the status of print and optimistic celebrations of growing political access to writing and publishing for decades;1 but Track Changes is one of the first to bring the technical specificity one finds in, for example, book history studies about the early printing press2 to modern word processing. In contrast to other, more philosophical explorations of the historical relationship between language and technology, from seminal works such as Ong's Orality and Literacy and McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy to more recent works such as N. Katherine Hayles's How We Think, Kirschenbaum argues against making general prognostications about the overall impact of word processing on the craft of writing, warning, "Any analysis that imagines a single technological artifact in a position of authority over something as complex and multifaceted as the production of a literary text is suspect, in my view, and reflects an impoverished [End Page 675] understanding of the writer's craft" (7). With this admirable qualification in mind, I suggest that the reverse might be true: new inquiries into the relationship between technology and the craft of writing in the present will now be incomplete without the detailed, technical history of word processing that Kirschenbaum uncovers, organizes, and captivatingly narrates.

To many readers (especially readers such as myself who are too young and privileged to have experienced writing before the ubiquity of Microsoft Word), more surprising than the fact that this study is the first of its kind will be that the seemingly inevitable outcome of modern word processing was anything but. From our current vantage point, the concentration of just a few writing programs, such as Word, Open Office, and Google Docs, all with similar visual layouts and functional capabilities, has likely narrowed the range of experiences individuals have in the basic composition, revision, and formatting of a document; this was not so before or during the development and introduction of word processing. Kirschenbaum pinpoints 1981 as "about the time word processing entered public awareness at large and became a topic of conversation and debate in the literary world as elsewhere" (52). But this watershed moment was defined by "new software . . . released almost daily . . . [and] literally scores of alternatives on the market, with choice dependent on not only features and capabilities but also compatibility with what were generally mutually incompatible host systems" (53). Even basic collaborative writing was therefore contingent on a number of cumbersome technical factors that writers needed to either adapt to or sidestep entirely. As Kirschenbaum puts it, "while the abundance of choice may seem empowering in retrospect, it was also a significant obstacle to getting started" (53). In part, this wide range of programs correlates with the multitude of creative fixes and shortcuts developed in response to the inordinate process of producing publish-ready professional documents, let alone a novel hundreds of pages long, before one could copy and paste a block of text or find every use of a word and globally replace it. The honing of this technology into what we know today—though, as Kirschenbaum's codex suggests, this technology is hardly finalized—depended on not only the engineering, marketing, and consolidation of hardware and software products but also a great deal of experimentation, input, and failure (including "overwriting" entire documents) from regular users and, in particular, long-form fiction authors.

As one might guess, tracing out all of the recombinant pathways of word-processing technologies presents a narrative challenge. [End Page 676] Thus, one of the first observations a reader will need to...