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Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013

Before the Ink is Dry

Philip Hensher’s handwriting manifesto

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Handwriting was once a measure of personality and, as the skill and interest in putting pen to paper dwindles, are we losing touch with an element of our humanity? Is this one reason why people are increasingly bereft of personality—flatliners roaming the media-cluttered landscape with iPhones growing from their hands like tumors?

Philip Hensher worries this might be so. In The Missing Ink (Faber and Faber), the British novelist (The Mulberry Empire) explores the gradual rise and precipitous fall of handwriting with humor, regret and insight. In a timeline beginning with Neolithic notches carved on bone, Hensher surveys the history of non-verbal communication and finds: “Depressing realization sets in. Writing was invented not by human beings but by accountants.” It took centuries before epic poetry found a place on the shelf next to ledger books. Of course, few people could write either poems or monthly statements until the movement for universal literacy took hold in the 19th century. During that time, various “methods,” many of them physically painful or linked to absurd notions of moral uplift, were imposed on generations of school children forced to hold their pencils just so.

Hensher picks up many facts on his droll detours through history, including one that has escaped most historians: Adolf Hitler virtually refused to write by hand, preferring typescript. Born a century later, he might have loved smart phones and employed Facebooks to “friend” his victims. Karl Marx must have anticipated all of this when he remarked that human advancement was possible only because of opposable thumbs.

Concluding that “handwriting is good for us,” Hensher insists that writing as opposed to typing is more “sensuous, immediate and individual”; it opens “our personality to the world.” He never advocates yanking the clock back to the 20th century, but only for us to make time for slower, more mindful pursuits such as walking or biking instead of driving, cooking instead of microwaving and using a pen instead of dashing off a tweet.