I sometimes marvel at the subjects some authors choose to explore. Take, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew Kirschbaum. (“Word Perfect,” by Josephine Livingstone, New Republic, June 2016, pgs. 71-73.) How large, I wonder, is the audience that lusts to learn how word processors morphed into computers? Curious, I sat down to read the book’s review and discovered I not only marveled at how authors adapted to the electronic device when it became available, but I dredged up memories of my own.
A journalist friend gave me my first lesson on the word processor. When I visited his office one day, he sat me down in front of new his contraption, eager to demonstrate the ease with which copy could be edited. He showed me how whole pages could be cut, pasted, deleted and rearranged with the click of a button. The experience was mind-boggling, because my method involved scissors and paste.
Though I was quick to see the advantages of the invention, I was skeptical, too. Letters composed of bits and bytes that flashed across an electronic screen didn’t seem real, not like the ink on paper. What if I hit a wrong key and the page disappeared, as it sometimes did ? Or the city suffered a blackout? Too risky, I thought. Besides, I’d made the leap from notepad to an electronic typewriter. That was enough progress.
Over time, of course, I relented. But I still don’t trust my computer. Today, I have 3 experts close at hand and wonder at the innocence of those who have none.
Isaac Asimov took to the word processor like a cow to clover and said it improved his writing. He didn’t mean his style or his imagination improved. He meant his copy was cleaner. Asimov, apparently, was noted for his messy pages. Michael Crichton also marveled at the ease with which he could manipulate his text, moving the first paragraph to the last paragraph of the last page of his piece with the click of a button. John Updike, one the other hand, was suspicious of the machine. “The traditional journey of the text toward perfection was being altered, cutting out people along the way.” (Ibid pg. 72)
By “people” Updike meant his secretary. He was right, of course. Eventually, she disappeared like a genie back into its bottle. So did shorthand and Dictaphones. A writer’s new found freedom meant no one was looking over his or her shoulder. No one caught the typo before the copy editor. Such freedom can be a bit scary. Nonetheless, composing became easier, faster and flexible, which allowed authors to play with style.
Who knew a machine could have such impact upon literature? Well, Guttenberg, with his printing press, might have guessed.