Thursday, December 13, 2012

Handwriting

I rarely write anything anymore. Apart from the occasional need to write my signature [most recently, when I vote], cursive has just about disappeared from my life. And writing my signature is becoming increasingly awkward. I recall—probably at about age twelve—attempting to create a distinctive way to sign my name, and, once I had, practicing and refining it. And now, through lack of practice, I'm losing facility. This is from a review of a book about the end of handwriting:
The Missing Ink is [a] casually elegant look at a “modest, pleasurable, private skill” that “is about to vanish from our lives altogether”: the art of handwriting. Philip Hensher...is steeped in his subject. He once wrote a 300,000-word novel by hand. As a boy, he saw the signature of Elizabeth I, with all those zigzags descending beneath. It was “love at first sight”. He recalls first seeing his own father’s signature, which resembled “a knife in a wound”.

He notes that the teaching of handwriting has been sliding down the agenda since the 1980s. Hensher was taught it in the 1970s – the amiable, rounded, child-friendly style developed by Marion Richardson in the 1930s – but he “found faint disappointment in the no-nonsense f’s”. He gives a lively account of the handwriting movements allied to the development of paper commerce in the mid-19th century, namely Copperplate (which was built for speed, resembling handwriting in a wind tunnel) and its more upright successors.

Hensher finds it telling that Sherlock Holmes was a student of graphology, it being “a fantasy from an urban world, where almost everyone is a stranger, and almost anyone could be dangerous”. In the 1970s various mental health associations decreed graphology to be of “zero validity”. .... But he concedes that handwriting can reveal character, even if not according to fixed rules. (Why else do we write letters of condolence by hand?) Hensher finds virtue in the slowness of handwriting, and he cites evidence that if you improve a child’s handwriting, you improve his literary skills.

As a boy, Hensher drew meaningless wavy lines in anticipation of learning cursive handwriting. I myself did the same. Perhaps it is a characteristic of budding authors, in which case any parent uncovering pages so scrawled in 2012 should be worried. Their child ought not to have too much of a stake in the future of reading and writing in this frightening, fraught “late age of print”.