Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting
Kitty Burns Florey
I’ve been wanting to read Script and Scribble since reading Stefanie’s review of the book at So Many Books. Although I was very interested in handwriting in my teen years and developed my own distinct script, the quality of my handwriting has deteriorated in proportion to my use of the computer for communication. I do still write in a journal by hand, but in that case illegibility is a virtue in that it shields my innermost thoughts from prying eyes (and sometimes even my own!). I have been dissatisfied with the state of my handwriting for some time, and so I was glad to hear of a book dealing with the issue.
Lest I give the impression that the book is some dry instruction manual, let me say that Script and Scribble is so much fun that I devoured it in a day and a half. Its unabashed curmudgeonliness is delivered with such abundant wit that even a die-hard keyboarding purist would enjoy it. The book traipses through the history of handwriting from antiquity to the latest pedagogical trends, with a sprinkling of anecdotes from the author’s own graphological joys and sorrows.
I must admit I did skip the chapter on “graphology” (handwriting analysis), a subject so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit the effort of mockery. Otherwise the book was thoroughly entertaining. I was (temporarily) wooed by the graceful beauty of the florid (to us) Spencerian script, which was
…based on natural forms. To Spencer, the stones washed smooth by the lake became the ovals that are the foundation of his letters; arching tree branches and smooth-flowing streams led him to his graceful connecting lines. Remembering the joys of nature—the wild flowers, the smooth pebbles, the beams of sunlight, the flight of birds across a sky traced with wispy clouds—he mingled round and angular, light and dark, trailing vines and curling stems, slender upstrokes and shaded downstrokes, swooping capitals and judicious flourishes.
But I soon came to my senses when I considered the practicality of such handwriting in my life. It’s difficult to write (though by no means the most difficult hand available), and for those not used to it, difficult to read, which makes it a poor medium for communication. When I glanced back over the examples of past writing and calligraphy styles, I came to the same conclusion as the author does in the last chapter: Renaissance Italic stands out as the most legible, beautiful, and practical hand we have come up with yet. Indeed there is a movement (which has its epicentre in Oregon) to teach children (and adults) a single, semi-cursive Italic-based writing hand to replace both “ball and stick” printing and the loopy Palmer-esque cursive that is sprung on children just as they are getting the hang of printing.
We can only hope this is the beginning of the end of Puritanical (literally—Puritans disliked calligraphy) domination of handwriting. I wonder if the pointed arches of Italic reminded the Puritans too much of “Papist” cathedrals? In any case, the roundhand (a.k.a. copperplate) writing they invented replaced the earthiness of a broad nib with the ethereal swooping of a pointed pen, and it obviously caught on among a growing literate population. I don’t imagine they would have approved of the excessive flourishes their style of writing gave rise to, but without it we might not have the humble ballpoint pen, which might have been more to their liking.
While the author does not hold any illusions about the status of handwriting in this digital age (i.e. it’s on life-support, with the family divided on whether to pull the plug), she does point out that there are areas where handwriting is still essential. Our competence may still be judged through hand-written job applications, notes of love, thanks, or condolence are only acceptable when written by hand, and in the case of medical records and prescriptions, good handwriting can save lives. There is also the fact that a full quarter of the children in the USA do not have access to a computer at home, and so handwriting is still an essential skill for students. If this is the case, then a quick, simple, good-looking Italic-based writing style might fulfill all of these needs, as well as solve more mundane problems like deciphering the shopping list or post-it note.
Alas, the book the Florey recommends for learning the new cursive Italic, Write Now, is out of print [Edit: is now available here], but there are plenty of websites and even YouTube videos showing how it’s done. But for me the most exciting thing about rethinking handwriting is the opportunity to come up with one’s own style. Technology may have handwriting on the ropes, but it also makes the entire history of handwriting available to us. We can take what we like from history and adapt it to our needs. Perhaps in the end technology will help us improve our handwriting and make it more open, accessible, streamlined, and customized—like technology itself.
A true source of human happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life and elevating them by art.
Postscript: One of the many amusing sidenotes in the book includes this gem from the writers’ guidelines for Verbatim magazine:
Under no circumstances will a handwritten MS be read. Instead, it will be roundly ridiculed, unless it is written using the Palmer method, in which case it will be stared at in amazement.