THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING
By Anne Trubek
Illustrated. 177 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.
“I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the Dutch scholar Erasmus declared in 1528 in his treatise “On Handwriting.” As Anne Trubek’s new book, “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” demonstrates, 500 years later the debate simmers on. Trubek traces Western script from Sumerian cuneiform to the Roman alphabet and on through Carolingian minuscule, Spencerian and Palmer scripts. When an Ohio second grader joins in to whinge about achy pen-holding fingers, handwriting — and specifically cursive, now eradicated from the Common Core curriculum — becomes as hot a topic as in Erasmus’s day.
Yet Trubek’s intriguing history is something of a bait and switch. As a writer and professor at Oberlin College, where she offers a course called “Technologies of Writing: From Plato to the Digital Age,” she’s the expert reporters call when weighing the merits of teaching traditional penmanship — she’s skeptical — and her book is a eulogy, urging a long goodbye to handwriting as we know it and an embrace of a neurological metamorphosis already underway as we adapt to new technology. But her revelatory deep dive also shows just how much we stand to lose.
Of course, as Trubek points out, resisting this probable, if not certain, transformation is nothing new. “Unsurprisingly, the most vocal opponents of new technologies are those who dominated the old,” she writes. There’s Socrates, for instance, railing against the treachery of writing, which he thought inferior to oration and risky too, eroding the necessity of memory.
“Writing preserves only the thought of literate peoples,” Trubek points out, quoting the scholar Barry Powell, attentively exposing the politics of access in her subject. In ancient Egypt, as in so many cultures, only well-born boys learned writing, and whether used as a branding tool of church and state or as a signifier of privilege, script is never neutral. Ambitious 17th- and 18th-century clerks changed their fortunes by mastering difficult new hands, while aristocrats wrote sloppily “as if in open proclamation of scorn for the arts by which humbler people oftentimes got their bread,” Thomas De Quincey noted.
Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.
A tension between style and substance pitted ornamentation against speed at the start. As Trubek tells it, the Sumerians’ first notations were solely bureaucratic, recording financial transactions in symbolic shorthand. By the medieval era, scribes went through 60 quills a day copying a single book for some three months, reaching perhaps the “apogee of handwriting in the West,” she writes. Though their work was “neither creative nor original,” occasionally a little ego spilled into the margins. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one monk scribbled. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”
How we write is delicately connected to what we write and why. Trubek suggests relegating cursive to art class, but removing it to the realm of the exceptional limits our expectations of experiencing beauty in the day-to-day. Today’s second graders, including my own, will learn to type — one day, my daughter might even out-key Stella Willins, who banged out 264 words per minute in 1926. But we can’t quantify the value in an ability to forge a rare harmony between utility and beauty, the handsomely scripted grocery list, the love letter, the diary I write just for myself.
“We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less, but loss is inevitable,” Trubek concludes. Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.