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Mom, what was handwriting?

A novelist examines what we lose as we abandon cursive for typing.

Philip Hensher.Eamonn McCabe

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.

IDEAS: What is the contemporary way to understand others through script?

HENSHER: What’s replacing handwriting, of course, in this campaign to make our personalities clear to other people, is the choice of fonts. People now describe themselves as a Garamond sort of person, and make clear they would never have any friend that used Comic Sans. It’s not quite so telling. It’s a kind of individuality that you’ve got perfect control over.

IDEAS: So what are we losing?

HENSHER: Handwritten notes and letters are our most intimate remaining contact with people who have disappeared from our lives....People my age [have] all sorts of little notes sitting around in boxes and tucked into books from friends they don’t see anymore, and if they saw the handwriting on an envelope, then they’d know immediately who that person was. I think it’s a very important thing to hang onto for that very important, unforeseen reason.


IDEAS: Do you still write by hand?

HENSHER: I write something every day by hand....and I write my books by hand. I thought I was virtually alone in this, but there are all sorts of writers that continue writing their books by hand. A.S. Byatt does, and Alan Hollinghurst does.

IDEAS: Why do you put yourself through that?

HENSHER: If you’re writing a novel, you don’t want it to come out too easily. You want the choice of words to be a little bit restrained.

IDEAS: What about those of us who aren’t novelists?

HENSHER: There’s nothing nicer than going back over things you’ve written in the past. Those things on paper do take you back to a particular time and a particular place where you were when you were writing this stuff. When I look at my book in print, I can’t remember where I was when I wrote anything. When I come across one of my notebooks, I can remember.

IDEAS: So how do we preserve handwriting?

HENSHER: Teach your children to write....Take pleasure in your own handwriting even when it’s scrappy and individual, because that’s the handwriting that your friends and loved ones will take the most pleasure in, because it’s you. Do it every day.


We maintain a mixed relationship with food. Sometimes we go out, sometimes we call in for a delivery, and sometimes, like on Christmas Day, we start from scratch preparing food for people that we love. Why can’t handwriting be like that?

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville.