The demise of handwriting – reports greatly exaggerated?

The buzz about a new book gets the Monitor’s language columnist in touch with her feelings about handwriting.

A few years ago I had an "aha!" moment regarding handwriting.

I had in my hand a sheet of paper with handwritten instructions on it for some sort of editorial task. It occurred to me at first that I didn't recognize the script, and then I realized whose it must be. Then it dawned on me: I'd been working with this colleague for at least a year, maybe two, at that point, and yet didn't recognize her handwriting.

It was one more milestone in the computerization of life – a sign that the informal, intimate communication of people working together in a newsroom had shifted from scribbled notes in pen (or grease pencil!) to instant messages and e-mail. Time was when our workdays were filled with such little missives, even though we didn't think of them as "correspondence." We recognized one another's handwriting the way we knew voices or faces.

As a child visiting my father's office, I was pleased to recognize, in little notes on the desks of his staff, the same distinctive handwriting I would see at home in the notes he would leave on the fridge – except that those notes were signed "Dad" instead of "RFW."

All this has been on my mind of late because of the buzz about "Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting," a new book by Kitty Burns Florey. Her lament over the failure of schools to teach children to write well has prompted some derisive push-back from technophiles who argue that digital natives can't be expected to learn to wield a pen.

I don't buy it.

For one thing, civilization is supposed to be cumulative, not a zero-sum game. For another, I don't want to see anyone cut off from the expressive, emotive connections that handwriting still fosters better than digital keyboarding does.

For many a biographer, part of really getting to know their subjects is learning to read their handwriting.

Russell Shorto recounts an extreme case of this in his 2004 book, "The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America." In 1974, a scholar named Charles Gehring was given the handwritten archives of "the Dutch colony centered on Manhattan," as Shorto calls it.

Over three decades, Gehring took "twelve thousand sheets of rag paper covered with the crabbed, loopy script of seventeenth-century Dutch, which to the untutored eye looks something like a cross between our Roman letters and Arabic or Thai" and translated them. The result is a whole new understanding of an important early chapter in American history, which led to, among other things, Shorto's own book.

It's useful here to distinguish between "cursive" and "handwriting" more generally. In the former, all the letters are joined up. The goal is to write an entire word without lifting pen from paper. That's like swimming the length of an Olympic pool without coming up for breath. It may be how Michael Phelps does it, but it doesn't work for most of us.

What Ms. Florey and others advocate is teaching one of the many attractive hands based on the italic handwriting of 16th-century Italy. That may sound impossibly grand – as if they want kids to learn to draw by copying the Sistine ceiling. These italic hands, though, call for combining enough letters to make for speed, but not so many as to lead to sloppiness.

And they've worked in many school systems.

Even in the age of Twitter, handwriting still offers much as a tool for deep thought and a channel of expression. I wouldn't want to lose it.

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