November 12, 2012

Whither handwriting?


Where is the art of handwriting going? Or has it already gone? Philip Hensher, critic and novelist, has written a new book, The Missing Ink, on the decline of handwriting, as it’s being replaced in schools, and in the world more generally, by what is honestly called “keyboarding.” I guess “keyboarding” is more logical than “typing,” the “type” having all but evaporated from the days of the tiny imitation-Gutenberg sorts swinging up and down on a typewriter to the current flow of circuits. But I will miss it.

Hensher’s concern is that handwriting is a deeply individual act, and that we lose something important when we move away from it. And to make his case, he lays out the history of handwriting (and may I point out that Kitty Burns Florey beat him to the punch, in Script and Scribble), especially as it was taught in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In recent years, several states have dropped the requirement for students to learn cursive—Indiana was the latest, last summer, and Theodore Dalrymple wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on the occasion, remembering his school days:

In those days, we still had little porcelain inkwells in the tops of our desks. The watery blue ink eventually evaporated to a deep blue gritty residue, and we used scratchy dip-pens with wooden handles, whose nibs were forever bending and breaking. Our whole world was inky. Our desktops were soaked in ink; it got into our skin, under our nails and into our clothes. We even began to smell of it.

And some have remained attached to the dip pen: in a review of Hensher’s book in the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding notes that Derrida

confessed to La Quinzaine Littéraire that he’d been in the habit, when working on ‘the texts that mattered to me’, of laying aside his ordinary pen for a dip pen with an artist’s quill.

Debates over the worth of handwriting, the connection between the hand and the thing written, feel like a modern phenomenon, but in fact, in the early days of printing, the scribal class made arguments in its own defense. One of the most famous is Johannes Trithemius’s “In Praise of Scribes” (1492), and, after a bit of hemming and hawing about how good it is to have things recorded in general, he gets down to printing:

Brothers, no one should think or say “Why do I have to wear myself out writing by hand, when the art of printing has brought so many books to light, so that we can cheaply put together a great library?” Truly, whoever says this is trying to conceal his own sloth…

The devoted scribe will always find books that merit his office. He need not fear harm from the printer. He is free, and his freedom makes his work a pleasure … He should go forth on his own path without looking back, knowing that his crown from God will not be diminished, whatever the importunities of others.

But also:

Printed books will never equal scribed books, especially because the spelling and ornamentation of some printed books is often neglected. Copying requires greater diligence.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.