The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key moment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M. (One notable author still using WordStar is George R.R. Martin.)
I heard the phrase “go off on a tangent” before I learned the geometrical meaning of tangent, defined by Wikipedia as a line “that ‘just touches’” a curve at one point. (I’m told that on math, Wikipedia is very good, which is to say dependably useful and accurate, without obvious bias. Yet I am seduced by the subjectivity of those scare quotes; they conjure up a phantom voice.) It’s an elegant metaphor, if hyperbolic, to borrow another term from geometry, for digression — the line that connects at a single point only and then extends off into infinity.
That idiom “go off on” makes a tangent sound undesirable, like an unprovoked rant. But in writing or in conversation, the tangent may be the most interesting part — the unexpected, insuppressible part. It is not a non sequitur — literally, “does not follow” — with its attendant loss of logical continuity. The digression does follow, it just doesn’t necessarily come around and connect back up.
When Smith slows down and lingers over the details of the scene at hand, the prose sings, and we are once again convinced that the strange story of Eliot and Cross could only be shaped by Smith’s deft hand.
We don’t binge on television because we like it, we like television—more than movies—because we can binge on it.