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Hands On—Does Handwriting Matter?

IN CONSTRUCTING HIS personal library, the financial tycoon J.P. Morgan did not leave a single object unadorned; the building is a singularly impressive display of wealth, power, and fine taste. But the modern glass cases now interspersed throughout the library contain art that is far more absorbing than the surrounding finery: pieces from Morgan’s vast collection of letters and books, such as Dickens’s working manuscript of A Christmas Carol, intimate postcards from Thomas Hardy, and one of Thoreau’s journals. Each text, with its scratched-out sentences and marginalia, is linked to the intricate thought-processes of writers long dead. Those dark little scratches of ink on paper beckon viewers to see the humanity in each stroke of the pen.

With the digital age upon us, it has been proposed that those inky lines and loops are historically akin to the rotary telephone: charming but unnecessary. The more we type and text, the less comfortably we grip ballpoint pens and No. 2 pencils. The British novelist Philip Hensher is more than concerned with the fate of handwriting—he is downright frantic that it “is about to vanish from our lives altogether.” Realizing that he has “no idea what the handwriting of a good friend” looks like, Hensher has written The Missing Ink as a paean to “what [handwriting] has meant to us, and what we have put into it.” The book is wide-ranging and encompassing, but Hensher’s pieces do not build a coherent whole, and the book’s erratic nature inhibits meaningful rumination on the impact of technological innovation. The humanity is lost among the history.

The Missing Ink is organized chronologically, with histories of various scripts mingling with “testimonials” from anonymous sources, brief personal essays, and mini-biographies of the writing habits and attitudes of various authors. Unfortunately, Hensher seems to believe that handwriting did not begin until the Industrial Revolution, and thus any sense of earlier scripts is neglected. Instead a large portion of The Missing Ink is dedicated to two interwoven threads from more recent history: the figures who shaped penmanship-teaching methods in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the varieties of handwriting that emerged after the rise of literacy in the industrialized world. If that sounds a little dry, it is. Hensher spends paragraph after paragraph dragging his readers through the pleasureless work of the European schoolchildren who labored for hours to master bizarre and arcane typographies. He examines German versus French school policies, Civil Service reform, and the various methods of “joining up” letters. The accumulation of these Gradgrindian facts—despite Hensher’s lively prose style—weighs down The Missing Ink and casts the history of handwriting as the history of handwriting education, certainly not the meatiest morsel of the subject.

But more dispiritingly, Hensher seems to lose track of handwriting for penmanship. Handwriting is a far more personal creation, a combination of instruction, inclination, and inspiration. It is a personal craft, a signifier of our patented, peculiar ticks and mannerisms. Archival papers, for instance, are precious objects because they bring a sense of personality to authors whose reputation eclipses their individuality. What better way to see past the persona than to note the distinct marks an author leaves on the page—Woolf’s long, liquid lines, Keats’s upright, softly-ornamented strokes. A manuscript brings with it Walter Benjamin’s “aura”—that elusive but essential quality that radiates from an original piece of art—and invites viewers to imagine a text as an object in the midst of its creation, as a gradual product of the mind.

Alas, Hensher’s interest in personality is limited to penmanship teachers such as A.N. Palmer and Marion Richardson, whose stories serve only as entry points to further tedious emphasis on handwriting instruction. Thus, we learn nothing about John Hancock’s world-historical signature, or Picasso’s child-like scrawl, or the confessions of notorious criminals. (There is a rogue—but nonetheless fascinating—chapter about Hitler). In fact, despite the brief “testimonials” of Hensher’s friends and family—which are, at times, barely understandable—The Missing Ink reveals relatively little about the handwriting of ordinary citizens; it presents handwriting only as the series of societal shifts.

Since he is a novelist himself, one would think that Hensher’s chapters on Dickens and Proust would sing. But he favors intensive close reading instead of what biography might reveal. Hensher does uncover various literary patterns—such as the way that Proust’s characters view handwriting alterations “as deeply disturbing and unnatural as a character change.” But he only circles around to the writers themselves in the last sentences of each essay. One glimpse at Dickens’s handwriting—small but curled, with deep dark slashes—reveals, to me at least, his tense but fluttering mind, but Hensher is hesitant to “read” handwriting as an indicator of personality, and the two men remain shadowy figures.

Can handwriting be a tool for diagnosis and divination? Despite his dismissive attitude towards graphology—the study of handwriting as an indicator of personality—Hensher seems unsure, and when he lets the question breathe, this uncertainty serves him well, lending his book a ruminative tone that it otherwise lacks. Handwriting, he says, “opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people.” Indeed, the sections of the book that focus on graphology successfully impart a sense of the intimacy inherent in an individual’s handwriting. Forward-slanting words, rounded letters, and natty, loopy signatures all indicate, according to graphologists, various qualities of temperament: large, flashy writing, for instance, is said to indicate a self-important, domineering personality. Hensher smartly warns readers away from claims that Hitler’s entire personality can be determined by the cross of his “t.” But he is more conflicted when it comes to hard and fast rules about the ordinary Joe’s handwriting. Contemplating what can be read beyond the words, Hensher finally asks himself, some ponderous questions about what we may lose if handwriting disappears.

In his final chapter, called “What Is to Be Done?” Hensher steps away from history and returns to the present, gnashing his teeth over the fate of the handwritten word and offering “advice” on how to keep pens marching across the page. It is a fittingly cranky ending for an unimaginative book that drones when it should illuminate and bemoans when it could celebrate. In his certainty that handwriting is a nearly dead art, Hensher has forgotten what is so lively about signatures and script. And in his haste to explain handwriting’s evolution, Hensher largely ignores the intimacies that it produces: the card in the mail from a loved one far away, an old recipe from a deceased relative, or the notes from a younger self in the margin of a favorite book. If there is any piece of advice Hensher himself should take, it’s this: keep calm and scribble on.

Hillary Kelly is the Managing Editor of The Book.