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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism