I took the evening off from blogging yesterday so I could finish Letter Writing Month. The goal was to send out 23 pieces of mail, one for every postal delivery day of the month. I didn’t think I would manage it but yesterday I realized I only had three left to go. So I did it! It was fun too.
Everything I sent out was handwritten so it was a fun conjunction of events that also made it my turn at the library to read Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink. Since the subtitle of the book is “The Lost Art of Handwriting” and since in interviews he talked about why handwriting is important, I thought the book might be different than it was. In the introduction he suggests the book is going to be about what might be lost if the habit of writing by hand disappears. But the book turned out not to address that except briefly in the first and last chapters. As a whole, it is not much different than Kitty Burns Florey’s book Script and Scribble which I read in 2009. Hensher’s book had a lot of padding in it, snips of interviews with people talking about their handwriting, two and a half chapters on graphology, one about Hitler’s handwriting, and a few others. He does provide a bit more detail on the history of teaching handwriting in schools than Florey did. In Hensher, each of the “great” reformers gets a chapter.
Hensher is also British so his perspective was especially interesting when he was talking about American handwriting. He claims Europeans can always pick out the handwriting of Americans because we are the only ones who have loops in our letters. Is this true? He spends a chapter admiring the way the French teach handwriting and thinks theirs is the nicest writing of any western country.
I enjoyed the social history aspects of the book especially all those reformers who believed that moral improvement could be had through learning to write a beautiful script. The chapter on a brief history of ink was interesting as was the history of pens. Did you know that fountain pens were available in 1710? They weren’t very popular though. Manufacturing had also not yet figured out how to make a flexible metal nib which meant it was somewhat akin to trying to write with a knitting needle. Quill pens wore out fast but they had the advantage of flexibility. Now, of course, there are ball point pens and Hensher has a fun chapter on the history of the Biro.
I expected the book to be rather light and it was. And while I did enjoy the parts I mention above, I almost didn’t make it past page 25. Hensher’s sense of humor is often rather crude and insensitive and not funny at all. In the introduction he takes a swipe at “fat Denise” whose “obese writing” also “contains the atrocity of a little circle on top of every i.” A few pages later he creates a scenario of a fender-bender in the farmlands of Indiana between a Subaru and a tractor, neither have anything to write with, the cell phone of the Subaru driver has a dead battery, and “the farmhand don’t be holding with them thar smart phones nor with that new-fangled Internet.” Still later in the book he makes a bad joke about lesbian hairstyles.
A mixed bag overall. If you are going to read this book, be prepared to take the good with the bad.