Slow writing (and why it matters)


“Writing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us. It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people. It gives pleasure when you communicate with it; when done at all well, it is a source of pleasure to the user. No one is ever going to recommend that we surrender the convenience and speed of electronic communications to pen and paper. Once typed into cyberspace, information remains there for ever, infinitely retrievable by typing a few key words into a search engine. By contrast, handwritten communication can only disappear into an archive, awaiting its transcription into type. 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…” Philip Henscher in the conclusion to The Missing Ink. 

Henscher’s book about the loss of handwriting as central to all we do, starts with a lament that he doesn’t know what the handwriting of one of his closest friends looks like, and it ends with the statement in the conclusion above: that we should choose to continue to handwrite because it will — like slow food, like walking, like filling our lives with things we love to do and make — continue to give us much pleasure.

In between he provides a lot of information about how we got from scratches on rocks to super-efficiency with 10 fingers, now more or less lost to us as it no longer sits within living memory. He talks about handwriting and education — which schools of thought predominated when and where (so that entire generations in whole countries landed up sharing a common way of composing letters). Henscher is a great fan of Marion Richardson whose ideas about learning to write made these lessons much more humane and child-centred and devotes a chapter to her ideas. He introduces us to the men who promoted particular types of writing style — Copperplate, Italic, and the charlatans who made the science of reading personality traits into writing believable just for a bit back there.

He talks about inks and pens and reminds us just how sophisticated the implements we grasp between our fingers are now. He also throws in little chapters he calls “Witness” where he interviews people about how they feel about their own handwriting; these are interesting little vignettes which mostly show that almost everybody feels something about how they handwrite (some even feeling a great deal of shame which seems to indicate that the old idea that to learn to write properly was to improve yourself morally still has a hold on some people’s minds).

Henscher has a strong, opinionated voice throughout — he throws in footnotes to tell you just what’s on his mind at points in the text — and he can get a little overpowering, but when he modulates his indignation a bit then he can be very funny — chapter 4 on the history of handwriting according to Henscher is very clever (point 5. “Depressing realisation sets in. Writing was invented not by human beings but by accountants”, page 30).

But I am sold on his conclusion: “… when we still have a choice whether to write with pen and paper or with electronic means… we should make the right, human choice” (page 251). He lobbies for the formal teaching of handwriting in schools again, but also reminds us that a choice of lovely pen, beautiful paper or book, and playing — as we once did — with the forms and shapes of writing, will remind us of what we are losing and how much we once loved it. Finally, take a leaf from The Missing Ink: write to those you love in your own handwriting, so that they can know you this way too.

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