Mom, what was handwriting?
A novelist examines what we lose as we abandon cursive for typing.
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Today, in the age of near-universal computer access in the United States, 42 states have stopped teaching cursive in favor of keyboard proficiency. (Massachusetts is one of the few holdouts.) The United States Postal Service teeters on the brink of bankruptcy for want of handwritten letters. That the importance of handwriting has diminished should surprise no one, but British novelist Philip Hensher’s ardent defense of it might.
In “The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting,” published last month by Faber and Faber, Hensher presents an impassioned argument for the continued use of manual script, as well as an idiosyncratic history of handwriting’s remarkably brief tenure as an important pursuit. As the significance of handwriting dwindles, Hensher contends, the Western world stands to lose a rite of passage, a manner of self-expression, and a way to connect to one another.
Handwriting trickled down to the masses only in the 19th century, thanks to the industrial revolution and the creation of white-collar jobs. Entrepreneurial handwriting innovators like Vere Foster in England and A.N. Palmer in the United States devised methods to teach the masses how to write swiftly and legibly, capitalizing on the newfound requirements of office work. Soon, a skill that had been the exclusive domain of those with money and leisure became commonplace.
As cities grew, Hensher argues, so did the need to assess strangers on external evidence. Handwriting, which seemed like an unconscious act, began to be seen as a window onto personality and temperament. Handwriting as a measure of character seeped into literature, too. Dickens, Hensher notes, used it as a plot device; Proust fetishized illegibility, getting an erotic charge from unreadable script; and Edgar Allen Poe wrote a barbed essay examining the autographs of his literary contemporaries. As late as the 1950s, psychologists considered handwriting a legitimate way to assess their patients.
But “[a]t some point over the past few years, handwriting has stopped being a necessary and inevitable intermediary between people,” Hensher writes. Instead, “it has started to become an option, and often an unattractive, elaborate one.”
Ideas spoke with Hensher by phone from New York.
IDEAS: Many children still learn handwriting in school—is it really going away?
HENSHER: I have a nephew who’s 12....He was the last child in his class to get a pen license—you had to write in pencil until your handwriting reached a certain level of accomplishment, then you were allowed to use a pen....He was a little bit humiliated at being the last one in the class to get it.
But [this rite of passage] only exists where people teach handwriting. Now, there are so few people that teach handwriting that an important rite of passage element is missing. What is the rite of passage with computers? You just press a button.
I got some very, very sad letters after the book came out from parents whose children had died and they looked through their correspondence with them, and all they had were occasional Christmas cards and a lot of text messages....They didn’t have anything in their [children’s] own hand to remember them by, or at least very little.
IDEAS: But adults, at least, write notes to themselves.
HENSHER: At the moment, it feels like too much effort to fire up your mobile phone and tap a laborious little message to yourself, but at some point, it won’t.
IDEAS: Hasn’t the point of handwriting been to maximize efficiency?
HENSHER: In the 18th century...there was a move for people to make their handwriting as beautiful as possible, in a rather aspirational way....[Then] people encouraged students to attain moral worth through perfect handwriting, and then to become good, employable citizens in the great capitalist machine of the late 19th century.
The thing that carries [through] for anyone considering handwriting is the idea that it should be as fast and effortless as possible and compatible with the highest degree of legibility.
IDEAS: So how did people begin to use handwriting as a means of judging others?
HENSHER: Graphology starts in the 1880s. It was a Frenchman who declared—and I’m not sure what evidence he had for this—if you had a particular way of shaping the curve of your “y,” it means you were bad with money....Later on, there were theorists who refined it.
IDEAS: Weren’t people skeptical?
HENSHER: I’m skeptical about graphology because some of the things [graphologists] have said over time have been so completely absurd. The most absurd are historical graphologists: They look at the handwriting of famous people they already know and that they’ve made up their mind about, and then they find proof of their character types in their handwriting. Like Hitler—a graphologist said that it’s very significant that his handwriting leans very far to the right.Continued...