Phillip Hensher’s highly readable book, The Missing Ink, contrives to inspire the revival of handwriting. His is an eloquent account and a journey through a vanishing world which with technology may be poised to disappear forever.
What spurred Hensher to write his book was a realisation that he had no idea what the handwriting of a friend, he had known for over a decade, looked like. Though the friend had emailed Hensher and sent him text messages, he had never sent a letter written by hand.
Life continues like this and relationships can go forever with people hardly noticing that there was no need for handwriting anymore. He points out that handwriting has stopped being an essential intermediary between people. Will some part of our humanity, Hensher asks, be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper?
With shimmering prose, Hensher delves into the history of handwriting-the pioneers who were handwriting teachers. He looks at the different styles. He looks at what handwriting has meant to humanity. He cites eccentric conclusions about personality, illness, psychosis, and even suitability for employment which students of the pseudo-science of graphology have drawn from the close scrutiny of handwriting.
He muses about his early life at school learning handwriting, the graduation to the adult joined-up style, the callus on his right hand where the pen used to rest, and the school boy penchant to use the pen as a missile. He remembers the spilling of ink onto the shirt, and his constant crunching of the pen until there were indelible tooth marks on it. Hensher repeatedly asks if we should care that handwriting is vanishing since the internet and its keyboard has replaced everything.
After all bad handwriting has cost businesses and governments a fortune. Millions of letters could not be delivered because of bad handwriting. In the 1994 Kodak said that ‘400 000 rolls of film could not be returned because names and addresses were unreadable’ So in the age of computer terminals, who cares if handwriting disappears? Hensher wittily lists a few reasons that drive the decline in handwriting skills. With the dawn of the digital age the curriculum in many western countries increasingly gives little time to the teaching of handwriting.
Fewer than half of British primary schools set aside time to teach handwriting. Some teachers are beginning to see teaching writing as a chore rather than developing a skill. Some education departments encourage ‘only proficiency with the keyboard.’ Some authorities have even recommended that children only be taught how to sign their names, and that the time previously given to teaching handwriting be dedicated to learning key boarding and typing.
Hensher cogently argues for the preservation of handwriting. Far from it being an expression of education or class or involving us in some way with the written word, he conveys superbly the role it still has to play in our lives. He cites research that shows that improvement in writing skills not only forms the building blocks for written language and improves recall, but also made the subjects better students who enjoyed learning. He also mentions a case in Texas in which a man died after a pharmacist misread a doctor’s handwritten prescription. In another case the handwriting of a nurse was so appalling that a colleague misread the instruction to give only four units of insulin of forty-with fatal consequences.
In his sublime conclusion, Hensher writes: ‘Though it would make no sense to give up the clarity and authority of print which is available to anyone with a keyboard, to continue to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish in a small but real way, our humanity. In all sorts of areas of our life we enhance the quality of our lives by going for the slow option, the path which takes a little bit of effort. Sometimes we don’t spend an evening watching Kim Kardashian falling over on YouTube: we read a book. Sometimes, we don’t just push a pre-prepared meal into the oven and take out sometime later. We chop and prepare vegetables; we follow a recipe or some procedure we remember from our family kitchens and we make dinner from scratch, with pleasure. We often do this because we love people, and think they are worthy of our effort from time to time. Sometimes we don’t get in a car and get to where we have to go as soon as we possibly can. Sometimes we open our front doors, and go for a walk in the spring sunshine. We might not get anywhere very far in two or three hours on foot, where in three hours by mechanical means you can get to Yorkshire (by car) or Paris (by train)or Istanbul (by air). But on the other hand, you’ve had a nice walk in the spring sunshine for very little expenditure, and you feel better for it. Perhaps that is the way to get handwriting back on to our lives-as something which is a pleasure, which is good for us, and which is human in way not all communication systems manage to be.’