Digital dexterities

The spectre of handwriting being replaced by digital texts resonates with many people, even while their iPhones and iPads are recharging at their side. A new book explores the subject in print and is doubtless available as an eBook. I wonder if anyone suggested it might be handwritten.

Novelist, critic and journalist Philip Hensher is professor of creative writing at the University of Exeter (The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13). Writing in The Observer (7 October 2012) about his new book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why it Still Matters (Macmillan, 2012), Hensher said:

“We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human, less telling about ourselves and less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion. Ink runs in our veins, and shows the world what we are like. The shaping of thought and written language by a pen, moved by a hand to register marks of ink on paper, has for centuries, millennia, been regarded as key to our existence as human beings.”

The world’s oldest writing system originated in Mesopotamia from a method of keeping accounts used around 3,500 BCE. It evolved from the use of a triangular-shaped stylus pressed into soft clay for recording numbers, together with a sharp stylus to produce a pictograph to indicate what was being counted. The earliest Sumerian inscriptions record land sales, business deals and tax accounts rather than conversations or letters. Of course, those in power seized upon writing in order to run their empires more efficiently and with greater military security.

Writing on papyrus, parchment and paper led to a new relationship between language and thought. In From Papyrus to Hypertext (2009), Christian Vandendorpe says that:

“By fixing thought, writing increased its power and modified its functioning. It introduced the possibility of order, continuity and consistency where there had been fluidity and chaos. In its natural state, nothing is more unstable than thought; associations are constantly being made and unmade, carried along by new perceptions and the potential of networks of associations. Every minute new mental constellations may form, as different as the waves breaking on a shore, each one combining the drops of water into a different structure with its own energy.”

Ephemeral as thought may be, it found a ready ally in handwriting, which was held to reflect an individual’s psychological traits and even to enable the diagnosis of diseases of the brain and nervous system. Graphology is the pseudoscientific study and analysis of handwriting and the jury is no longer out on its validity as an indicator of personality.

A friend of mine, having retired, spent her new found freedom studying calligraphy. Henceforth, letters and cards were graced by italic lettering that was uniform in style and eminently legible. Her script revealed nothing of her ribald sense of humour and it lacked the quirkiness and contumacy that make handwriting so notorious, infuriating and ineffably effable. As Philip Hensher laments:

“Handwriting is what registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right. Yet at some point, the ordinary pleasures and dignity of handwriting are going to be replaced permanently.”

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