Reading a handwritten article about handwriting, in a 21st-century magazine, is like listening to your great-great-grandfather shout in the middle of a crowded multiplex about the incomparable glories of vaudeville and the lost art of wearing hats in public. And yet, somehow, here we are. Certain vestigial urges have been awakened, deep in the muscles of my fingers and wrists, by Script & Scribble, Kitty Burns Florey’s paean to the now nearly defunct barbarism of dragging ink trails across paper. (I’ve switched to print, for the reasons we always end up switching to print: My handwriting, set against a neat field of type, looks like a giant mess of alien runes, and my keyboard-weakened fingers tend to cramp up after a couple of sentences.) Florey, a nun-educated “scriptomaniac,” lovingly traces the history of handwriting, from its ancient birth to its imminent demise. She rounds up some fascinating arcana: that a typical pencil can draw a line 35 miles long; that Confederate soldiers boiled rusty nails in vinegar during an ink shortage; that the Coca-Cola logo, now an icon of scriptographic fanciness, was once probably just “a typical bookkeeper’s hand”; and that “cacography” (poor handwriting) costs American businesses roughly $200 million a year. The book’s margins are crowded with illustrative photos: Florey’s own earnest third-grade penmanship exercises, the clotted page of a Dickens manuscript (his handwriting was so difficult that teams of compositors had to go to ridiculous lengths to decipher it). To demonstrate the utilitarian depths to which our culture has fallen, Florey sets a handwritten bill from 1743 London—a gorgeously gratuitous explosion of swirling filigree—against a soulless modern printout from Comcast.
Handwriting, today, is artisanal—an emblem of slowness in an impatient world. Eighteenth-century writing masters recommended practicing penmanship for six to twelve hours a day, a degree of attention we tend to lavish only on keys and screens. And while we shouldn’t let our nostalgia get out of hand—people, after all, have been predicting handwriting’s decline since the invention of typewriters—it’s hard not to feel the occasional spasm of regret. Handwriting makes one’s relationship to words intensely personal. It manages to blend, mystically, the pure abstraction of thought with the physical here and now—accidents of pen, ink, hand, grain, scent, biography. In sixth grade, when I was very fat, my handwriting became so tiny my teacher used to make a big show of grading my papers with a magnifying glass; that same year I started habitually replacing the first letter of my last name with the logo of my favorite baseball team, the Oakland A’s, and engineered a signature so ridiculously stylized and “adult” that other kids would huddle around my desk and ask me to write their names the same way—all of which history comes alive every time I handwrite a word. I still revert to handwriting whenever I’m having trouble writing something. It’s the form in which my mind has existed most purely in the world, and I still get a little thrill seeing a page of it. As Robert Graves once suggested, “a true poet’s handwriting corresponds with his inimitable personal rhythm.” Print, on the other hand, is ruthlessly democratic: It equates all of our thoughts, no matter how different.
Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall
By Kitty Burns Florey.
Melville House. $22.95.