The lost art of handwriting

Inspired by Philip Hensher’s new book, the NS team reveal their hands.

How do you feel about your handwriting? Did you imitate the elegant cursive script of a school-mate you slightly fancied? Do you hide your ballooning Bs and hearted-topped Is from prospective friends and employers? Chances are you don’t give it much thought anymore. With the advent of keyboards so small you can carry one in your pocket, we write everything from love letters to shopping lists as emails, texts or tweets. We choose the path of greatest ease. I often use a Moleskine App on my smartphone while a Moleskine notebook languishes at the bottom of my satchel - which is just about as vain as it is bizarre.

And yet there is good reason, argues Philip Hensher, for such a paradoxical evaluation of our handwritten style: “We have surrendered our handwriting for something more mechanical, less distinctively human, less telling about ourselves and less present in our moments of the highest happiness and the deepest emotion,” he writes, while simultaneously recognising that “if someone we knew died, I think most of us would still write our letters of condolences on paper, with a pen.”

Hensher’s new book The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (And Why it Still Matters), rests on the argument that “ink runs in our veins, and tells the world what we are like”. Handwriting “registers our individuality, and the mark which our culture has made on us. It has been seen as the unknowing key to our souls and our innermost nature. It has been regarded as a sign of our health as a society, of our intelligence, and as an object of simplicity, grace, fantasy and beauty in its own right.”

The Observer published an extract from the book last weekend, in which Hensher cited a number of examples from the not-so-distant past when an individual’s hand was considered an irrefutable indicator of their personal traits, and one of inestimable importance. “In 1847, in an American case, a witness testified without hesitation that a signature was genuine, though he had not seen an example of the handwriting for 63 years: the court accepted his testimony.” Hensher continues, “American Demographics claimed that bad handwriting skills were costing American business $200m in 1994”, and recalls the cases of Moira Pullar and Gordon Brown's letter of condolence, in which bad handwriting caused enormous grief.

We ridicule illegibility in our handwriting above all. It is the source of that aphoristic slice of conventional wisdom with which all are familiar (especially Larry David): if you want to read a doctor’s note, take it to a pharmacist. Resisting accusations of ludditism, Hensher in no way advocates we try to slow the advance of keyboard-led communication by refusing to accept it. It’s quick, it’s universal and it works. Instead, his book reminds us of the joy of writing by hand: its mysterious power, its physicality and reflexiveness, likening the pleasures it produces to those of cooking a meal from scratch, or talking an unhurried walk in the sun. These are activities technology has surpassed (think microwaves, cars), yet which continue to produce enjoyments that are unsurpassable. “Sometimes,” Hensher observes, “we don’t spend an evening watching Kim Kardashian falling over on YouTube: we read a book”.

You may recall TV dramas in which the forensic assessment of a suspects’ jagged script enables the just prosecution of a lucid murder rather than an innocent (but pathological). Throughout the 20th century the science of graphology gained traction, crystallising a series of psychological traits detected in the size, layout, slant, connectedness, speed, regularity, letter forms and angularity of a person’s writing, something which fuelled widespread speculation about Hitler’s scrawl, a subject to which Hensher dedicates a short paragraph in the book. In 1942 Time argued, “If taken away from fortune-tellers and given serious study, graphology may yet become a useful handmaiden of psychology, possible revealing important traits, attitudes, values of the ‘hidden’ personality.”

Richard Wiseman, a professor of public understanding has stated explicitly “There is no credible scientific evidence with it at all. Every controlled test has showed that no evidence has emerged”. Hensher too disregards the idea that a sharp slant and thin lower loops might indicate genocidal tendencies (though cf. Caroline Crampton, very suspicious) he is not so willing to believe that the way we make sense with pen and paper has nothing more to tell us.

Some people, when giving a book as a gift, write a personal message on the inside cover. Others insist on continuing the outmoded tradition of sending laughably ugly postcards home from far flung destinations and some even maintain epistolary relations with one or two distant friends. I am one such fossil. Why should we consider quirky or attention-seeking acts which all of fifteen years ago were ubiquitous and everyday, part of the fabric of our lives? We do this because, as Hensher argues, “it has so much of you in it”, and because of what is signified by the act: this matters, it will last a little longer than most of the things we say to one another. Perhaps, I enjoyed doing this for you.

In order to test some of Hensher’s theories, this morning I conducted a pseudo-scientific study, using the subjects most readily available to me – staff in the New Statesman office. I had them write out the famous pangram: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” (a pangram is a sentence which uses every letter of the alphabet. A perfect pangram does so without repetition, as in “TV quiz jock, Mr PhD, bags few lynx”), to see whether any notable difference emerged between each role, to search for any tell-tale signs of impending fascist megalomania, or discernible differences between culture, design, ads and politics. What emerged was a room full of sheepish journalists, forced to acknowledge the fact that showing off your handwriting means revealing a little piece of yourself.

And finally, in the interest of full disclosure, the blogger:

Look at that “Z”. A lunatic if ever there was one.

The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher is published tomorrow by MacMillan.

Handwriting samples from the NS team.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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