The past and future of handwriting- David Rundle in the TLS

In the current TLS there is an excellent review by David Rundle of two recent books on handwriting.

Anyone who knows me, or more specifically had had to read my handwriting, will no doubt be amused to discover I am actually quite interested in handwriting. I have tried various pens, pen grips and other means to improve my scrawl. Alas, when time is short all these are abandoned and I revert to type (in every sense)

It is comforting to find out from the piece that St Thomas Aquinas also had difficult-to-read handwriting:

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Anne Trubek’s book sounds like it exemplifies a current belief that handwriting is irrelevant anyway in the digital age. I am not so sure. Quite apart from anything else, I suspect handwriting to be a skill with much far transfer. And writing is an opportunity for artistic expression, something at a premium in a homogenised, noisome culture.

Rundle is quite sceptical of Trubek’s claims, which as he points out are rather First World centric, and concludes:

Pen and paper, then, will remain because they are cheap. Meanwhile, in the West, many of us may fret over the scrawl we inflict on the page, but we can reassure ourselves that bad handwriting is not an invention of modernity: ask anybody who has tried to decipher pages written by Thomas Aquinas. He would certainly not make it into a gallery such as that Patricia Lovett provides. Her selection of scribes necessarily concentrates on those with the most skill, but enough specimens survive to remind us that few mastered that level of artistry. Many wrote less accurately, less consistently and simply less presentably. If they had been Xerox machines, they would have been the ones in urgent need of a visit from the engineer.

A volume chronicling cacography – poor handwriting – might not sell as well as one on calligraphy, but it deserves its history too, and will certainly have its future. For those who are truly latter-day Aquinases, with a natural difficulty in being legible, the keyboard is a saving grace. Others too prefer it as their medium of self-expression. Yet, it is a “self” sublimated to the font choices of the corporation whose software you use. Of course, when we write by hand, we are also confined, individuality restrained by the requirements of the script, but there is a certain licence for variation and idiosyncrasy, however badly it is executed. Many may find such latitude engenders lassitude and choose to allow the computer to decide for them. That is not a freedom available to everyone in our world – if true freedom it is.

Rundle’s Twitter feed is full of interesting and entertaining snippets from manuscripts:

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