May 3, 2013 - Keeping It Straight
By Scott Harrup
Matthew Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, is completing Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing for Harvard University Press. Writing for Slate Book Review, Kirschenbaum shared some of his research concerning the first novel ever written on a word processor.
That distinction goes to Len Deighton's 1970 World War II novel, Bomber. The word processor used was nothing like today's compact notebook or even desktop computers. IBM's MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter) weighed 200 pounds. Deighton had a window removed from his home in 1968 before the MTST was hoisted in with a crane.
The structure of Bomber was perfectly suited for word processing. Deighton centered the novel's action around a single raid by the British Royal Air Force in June 1943, and examined the venture based on the points of view from dozens of characters. He had to keep the details of the action straight regardless of the perspective from which he wrote.
Kirschenbaum notes: "Deighton prepared for the writing with thousands of hours of research, including site visits to the locations depicted in the book, stints in the military archives, scores of interviews, and a cross-Channel flight in a restored German Heinkel III. He kept meticulous notes, all of them color-coded and cross-referenced. Meanwhile, the walls of his London home were papered with maps and weather charts of Europe, which he used to storyboard the unfolding action, placing tape and tags to mark the positions of different aircraft over the course of the book in order to ensure narrative continuity."
Early in the book's development, Deighton typed initial chapter drafts, marked them by hand with editorial changes, and had his assistant, Ellenor Handley, retype subsequent drafts. The MTST allowed changes to be made in the text as it was being written.
I have a copy of Bomber in my library, but over the years have only read small portions of the work. With a greater appreciation for the book's place in literary history, as well as the logistics of its design, I hope to get back into it in the near future.
Deighton's work reminds me of the Bible's interwoven narrative. Think of it — a central, redemptive saga stretching for millennia and told from the points of view of men and women of different eras and cultures. And all of it done by hand!
No human author could have kept all that material straight. As the apostle Peter explained, "No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:20,21, ESV).
The end result is a book that continues to inspire billions of readers and to shape the course of history.
— Scott Harrup is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Out There (sharrup.agblogger.org).