A fountain of knowledge on putting pen to paper
HANDWRITING: The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why It Still Matters), By Philip Hensher, Macmillan, 244pp, €14.99
Philip Hensher is an accomplished novelist, critic and teacher and, as this delightful book demonstrates, a dedicated calligraphic aesthetician. He does his writing with the fluency of ink through a fountain pen. Writing by hand, he believes, is more intimately self-expressive than by any machine. He deplores the general decline of handwriting and the baneful effect on communication. It is an increasingly rare pleasure to see a hand- addressed envelope among the officialese and junk mail.
His subtitle is a slight exaggeration: handwriting is not yet altogether a lost art; however, his anxiety is understandable, and the evangelical zeal of his plea for humanity may well bring tears of sympathy to the eyes of anyone not quite completely addicted to the computer.
Hensher writes in the leisurely essayistic manner of one of the last belletrists, while conveying a lot of instructive information. He clearly outlines his prospectus: “I’m going to talk about the pioneers who interested themselves in teaching handwriting, in particular styles: in the 19th century, the Americans Platt Rogers Spencer and AN Palmer, with their corporate copperplate, and the English inventor of the efficient ‘civil service’ hand, Vere Foster. There are the revivers of the elegant italic style in the 20th century. . . And I’m going to talk about the sometimes eccentric conclusions about personality, illness, psychosis and even suitability for employment which students of the pseudo-science of graphology have tried to draw from a close study of handwriting.”
All the promises are entertainingly fulfilled. His own findings and opinions are interspersed with chapters called “Witness”, quoting a variety of people he has interviewed informally with a tape recorder on the subject of handwriting.
Considering the ancient history of writing, from pictographs and hieroglyphics to the present, one can accept the notion that the invention of language and of the means of recording it is the foundation on which all civilisation has developed. When writing fails, all sorts of systems break down. Hensher cites a typical example: “In 2000, a US court awarded $450,000 to the family of a Texan man who died after a pharmacist misread the doctor’s handwritten prescription.”
In the 21st century teachers and pupils are evidently bored by the regimentation of writing lessons. Hensher quotes a psychologist called Scott Hamilton, who said it made sense to teach children only to sign their names in joined-up writing.
“The time allocated for cursive instruction could then be devoted to learning keyboarding and typing skills. From an intuitive standpoint, this may make sense, based on the increasingly digital world into which this generation of children is growing up.” But Hensher, of course, is horrified: “God save us all from Dr Hamilton’s intuitions.”
He continues: “We can let handwriting maintain a special place in our lives if we choose. If someone we knew died, I think most of us would still write our letters of condolence on paper, with a pen. And perhaps there are other occasions when we still have a choice whether to write with pen and paper or with electronic means, and we should make the right, human choice.”