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January 26, 2009

The death of handwriting?


The Spencerian alphabet, and a sample of Walt Whitman's handwriting, from Script & Scribble.

The Spencerian alphabet, and a sample of Walt Whitman's handwriting, from Script & Scribble.

A new kind of illiteracy is confronting more and more seemingly educated people these days: the inabilty to read handwritten text. In a Wall Street Journal article, Cullen Murphy discusses the observation by Kitty Burns Florey in her new book Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting that, as Florey puts it in this excerpt, “There’s a widespread belief that, in a digital world, forming letters on paper with a pen is pointless and obsolete, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is right up there with folks who still have fallout shelters in their back yards.” It’s more than just societal attitude, Murphy says. “Typing and texting have caused cursive skills to atrophy, and schools regard standards of style and legibility the same way they regard standards of dress. There may even come a day when longhand writing can no longer be deciphered by ordinary people — you’ll have to bring those old letters in the attic to some fussy museum curator.” Murphy says Florey makes some interesting observations about how to approach the problem — for example, she discusses a new kind of hand writing half-way between cursive and block-print lettering being taught in some schools — but he enjoys her overview of the very topic of handwriting, which ranges from “the making of quill pens (which curve slightly according to which wing of a goose they’re taken from and thus are adaptable to left- and right-handers)” to “the emergence of graphology, the attempt to discern traits of character in style of writing.” including one “Milton N. Bunker, the father of grapho-analysis, a stern but iffy subdiscipline, [who] boasted that on the basis of handwriting alone he could distinguish someone who had ‘a love of sweets and gravies’ from someone ‘who prefers simple salads.'”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives