Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Maryland

My Literary History of Word Processing: Your Assistance Needed

Greetings. As described in Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times story “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute,” I am in the midst of researching and writing a book entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. The book is under contract to Harvard University Press, and should be out in late 2013. You can listen to a talk I recently gave at the New York Public Library based on the first chapter, “Stephen King’s Wang,” here.

The book documents the moment at which large numbers of literary writers began making the transition from typewriters to word processors and personal computers (late 1970s, early 1980s). I want to know who the early adopters were, and how they thought about the new digital technology in relation to their writing practice. I am interested in both “highbrow” and popular authors alike, fiction and non-fiction. I am also following the story through to the present day: many writers now have platforms on social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

Some of my best information so far has come from word of mouth. That’s where I need your help. I would be very interested in hearing from:

  • authors who were early adopters of computing and word prcocessing and/or social media (also authors who made a deliberate decision not to switch to a computer);
  • editors, publishers, agents, and others in the business with relevant insights to contribute;
  • technologists who worked on early word processing programs;
  • anyone with relevant primary source materials to loan, share, or contribute;
  • anyone who knows of interesting fictional renditions of computers and word processing (for example, King’s short story “Word Processor of the Gods”).

If you would like to offer information, anecdotes, corrections, or tips about things to look at or persons to contact, please write to me at mkirschenbaum at gmail dot com. Thank you for reading.

Stephen King’s Wang

Update: Audio here.

I will be giving a talk entitled “Stephen King’s Wang: The Literary History of Word Processing” on Dec. 16 at the New York Public Library. Here’s an abstract:

Mark Twain famously prepared the manuscript for Life on the Mississippi with his new Remington typewriter, and today we recognize that typewriting changed the material culture (and the economy) of authorship. But when did literary writers begin using word processors? Who were the early adopters? How did the technology change their relation to their craft? Was the computer just a better typewriter, or was it something more? This talk, drawn from the speaker’s forthcoming book on the subject, will provide some answers, and also address questions related to the challenges of conducting research at the intersection of literary and technological history.

The talk, which is drawn from Track Changes, my new book in progress under contract to Harvard University Press, will be at 12:00 noon in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Wachenheim Trustees Room (that’s the main 42nd St. branch).

Thanks to NYPL Labs for the invite!

Digital Humanities Archive Fever

My plenary lecture at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, June 2011. The talk, which runs about 50 minutes with questions, attempts to present a framework and rationale for more closely integrating the activities of the digital humanities with the work of those archivists now beginning the formidable task of processing born-digital cultural heritage collections.

DHSI Plenary Lecture: “Digital Humanities Archive Fever” from MITH in MD on Vimeo.

During My Fellowship

I will be on leave with a Guggenheim fellowship from August 2011 to August 2012, working on my new book project. During this period I will be adopting the following policies to protect the research time with which I have been entrusted.

For students and colleagues here at Maryland:

  • My commitment to current and former students or employees for whom I am or have been their primary adviser or supervisor continues, and I will be available to them for job-related letters of recommendation, reading work in progress, research consultations, and thesis defenses or exams. I will not, however, be able to take on new students during my fellowship year, neither graduate nor undergraduate. Nor will I be able to write letters of recommendation or offer consultations for students with whom I have not had a previous advising relationship.
  • I will be keeping my time on campus to a minimum. Generally Tuesdays will be the best days to make an appointment.
  • I will not be available for class visits or for hosting groups or classes at MITH.
  • I will not be accepting new committee assignments.
  • As of May 2011 I have concluded my term as director of the Digital Cultures and Creativity honors program. Hasan Elahi is the new director. Inquiries may be sent to dcc-honors at umd dot edu.

For the rest of the world:

  • I will be keeping new travel and speaking commitments to a minimum. Please feel free to contact me with your invitation—I am always genuinely appreciative—but please understand if I ask you to keep me in mind for the future instead. The same goes for invitations to contribute chapters and essays. I will, of course, be honoring previously arranged commitments.
  • I will not be taking on manuscript reviews or reports for presses and journals. (If you truly think I would have exceptional interest in a particular item you can try me.)
  • I will not be available to write letters of support for grant applications and the like.
  • I will not be taking on external project evaluations.
  • I will not be taking on external tenure evaluations.
  • I do anticipate teaching at Rare Book School in summer 2012, pending, of course, the needs of the RBS curriculum.

In short, for the next twelve months,

Give me, kind Heaven, a private [work]station,
A mind serene for contemplation!

Thank you in advance for your attention and understanding. (With apologies to John Gay.)


Track Changes

UPDATE: NYT readers, you may wish to have a look at a more recent post in which I’m specifically requesting research assistance on documenting the early history of literary word processing. Thanks.


So, yeah, I’m thrilled, chuffed, and floored to be announcing that I was selected as a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow.

In its eighty-seventh annual competition for the United States and Canada the Foundation has awarded 180 Fellowships to artists, scientists, and scholars. The successful candidates were chosen from a group of some 3,000 applicants.

Congratulations have been coming in from all over. Thank you once again to everyone who has written. The highlight was receiving a text message from my ten-year old niece who saw my name in the New York Times.

The project I will be working on is entitled “Track Changes: Authorship, Archives, and Literary Culture After Word Processing.” Unlike my first book, Mechanisms (2008), where I was primarily interested in experimental instances of electronic literature, here I will be looking at the impact of digital media throughout all sectors of contemporary literary composition, publishing, reception, and archival preservation. I intend to argue that the full parameters of computers as what electronic publishing pioneer Ted Nelson three decades ago called “literary machines” have not yet been fully delineated, and that as a consequence we conceive of print and the digital as rival or successive forms rather than as elements of a process wherein relations between the two media (at the level of both individual and collective practice) are considerably more dynamic and contingent. Ted Striphas’s work in the already-indispensable The Late Age of Print (2009) probably comes closest to the kind of study I am looking to accomplish, but whereas he focuses primarily on the commerce and commodity status of books in the present day, my interests lie in the material conditions of authorship and today’s technologies of the literary. (The “Track Changes” of my title was first introduced as the “Mark Revisions” feature in Word 95, where it was derivative of the Redline functionality in WordPerfect, then Word’s major industry competitor.) The methodology will be a hybrid of software studies and book history. The writing I do will build on the work I’ve done in the projects I’ve taken on since finishing Mechanisms, including “Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use,” Preserving Virtual Worlds, and Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections.

I will, of course, use this space to share occasional work in progress and otherwise offer updates on progress. In the meantime, I will be at TILTS at UT Austin at the end of May, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and Digital Humanities 2011 conference in June, SHARP in DC in July, and then teaching once again at Rare Book School in Charlottesville. The fellowship period begins in August.


Watch me and Rachel Donahue present on “Digital Forensics and Cultural Heritage” at the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) Fall 2010 Membership Meeting, December 13-14, 2010 Arlington, Virginia.


My latest piece of game-related writing over at Play the Past examines Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-?, a controversial board game that attempts to create a playable model of the post-9/11 world. What are the responsibilities of designer, player, and publisher with a game timely and topical enough to encompass rapidly unfolding events in Egypt and the Middle East? Can a game, any game, do justice to the complexities and sensitivities of our contemporary world? Can board games tackle material mass market computer games can’t or won’t? Join the discussion!