As digital supplants print as our default medium, and writing by hand goes the way of the dinosaur — whether you remember your penmanship classes from grade school, or were already keyboarding by the time you were ten — chances are good you have an opinion on handwriting. As Anne Trubek shows us in her vigorous new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, it’s a subject people have had strong feelings about for a long time.
Trubek, a former Oberlin professor, acts as an unsentimental tour guide through handwriting’s history, from the earliest impressions in clay to a modern American classroom, where second graders learn both to type on a keyboard and write by hand. At the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, she has the pleasure of holding a clay Sumerian cuneiform tablet in her hand, just as the person who wrote on it with a stylus did some 5,000 years ago. (It’s surprisingly small and comfortable to hold, not unlike her smartphone.)
The author shows us how medieval scribes copied out manuscripts by hand, and tells us what happened when the printing press came along to make their work obsolete: Interestingly, the new technology didn’t immediately replace the old one, and “scores” of manuscript books were made after the production of printed books began. We also learn that by the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans had a variety of scripts that denoted social class, gender, and profession. In fact, the few English women who were taught during the 16-19th centuries learned a special script called Italian hand, “a simpler script for the simpler sex.”
In looking toward handwriting’s “uncertain future,” Trubek seems to decide it’s not all that uncertain: It’s on its way out, though it will probably take a very long time to go. Many people find this time of flux disturbing, and long for the human-ness of handwriting, a fact Trubek reports without scorn — though she’s dismissive of recent research that has come out from several universities suggesting that handwriting is cognitively superior to typing in various ways, calling the science “fuzzy.”
Though much has changed, all of the concerns Trubek touches on in her history of handwriting — class and gender, culture and tradition — have resonance for us today. Even the desire to return to the warmth and authenticity of handwriting has a recent historical precedent, she writes. One hundred years ago, William Morris and friends revived medieval calligraphy methods as a response to the industrial revolution, “with its machines and smog and printed letters.” Just as letterpress printing is considered an art form today, those revivalists called their illuminated pages artworks, preserving their beauty for a world that no longer needed them for communication.
Katie Haegele: I’ve followed the debate over handwriting in recent years, and find it interesting to see people’s varied (and emotional) responses to the changes taking place. Apparently this is nothing new. You even open your book with a funny quotation from Erasmus that’s 500 years old: “I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject.” Why do you suppose the subject is such a sensitive one for people?
Anne Trubek: Our relationship to handwriting reflects our larger culture. So when Erasmus made that comment, he thought Gothic script, used by Germans, was “barbaric" — so you can see how handwriting represents national and cultural values. The italics / humanist script Erasmus preferred was associated with Renaissance values, and he deemed the cramped Gothic script as less civilized.
For Americans today, we carry certain connotations about handwriting, and you can even see those shifting over the past few years. Five, ten years ago people worried that the loss of handwriting signaled a robotic, techno-dystopia future; today, people are more concerned about supposed claims that handwriting “makes you smarter” neurologically, and that it connects you to history.
KH: Yes, and I have read a bit about those studies you cite in the book. I admit to finding some of those ideas exciting, at least the thought that there could be a connection between writing by hand and other kinds of creativity. I think of the artist Lynda Barry, who has talked about having writer’s block and getting out her paintbrush to paint the words instead of using her computer, which was the way she was able to finish her novel. Maybe forming words with a pen (or paintbrush) isn’t superior to typing them, but it is different, right?
I found it interesting to read what you wrote about Johannes Trithemius, who believed that writing by hand was "a form of religious devotion" that the mechanical act of setting type on a printing press could never be. That argument chimes with ideas people have now, that there’s some inherent value in the effort and care put it into writing by hand that’s lost when we type instead.
AT: As for the studies, I've made my position on that clear: There is nothing definitive. If people want to focus on creativity that comes from fine motor skills, they could teach all kids piano instead.
I think the key here is "effort and care.” It takes more time, and thus now signals something more meaningful — to us today. But it's not the act of writing per se, it's the effort and care. So, for instance, if you bake someone chocolate chip cookies, or knit them a scarf, instead of sending an email on a birthday, that would signal effort and care just as a handwritten note would. For many of us today, taking more time is more meaningful.
KH: Well, it interests me that writing by hand, at least for artists and writers, can provide access to ideas in a way that typing on a keyboard doesn’t. I wish the way in which the two processes are different were better understood.
AT: Yes, the science that is conclusive is that people with poor handwriting are graded lower than people with better handwriting.
KH: You talk about this disparity in the book. Like you, my father was left-handed, and he was made to feel inadequate and even stupid for his “poor" handwriting. I like the idea that typing on a keyboard levels that playing field, provided kids in school all have equal access to those resources. Could you talk about what you see as the democratizing effect of typing in the classroom?
AT: Studies have shown that if a teacher reads the identical essay in two different handwritings — one sloppy, one neat — the neater one receives a higher score. So students with bad handwriting are penalized academically, and unfairly. In addition, many students struggle with handwriting because they have disabilities. Keyboards enable many students with disabilities, as well as those with poorer handwriting, to have their letters look identical to those with neat handwriting. Seen in this light, assessing students’ typed work is more just, and keyboards democratizing.
KH: So much of your book is the history of handwriting as it has developed over the last several thousand years. What first sparked your interest in this as a research subject?
AT: When I was a professor, my research was on the history of writing, and how the digital age was changing how we write. When my son was in second and third grade, he had enormous difficulties in school because he struggled with handwriting. He had to stay in for recess, I was brought in for ‘interventions' — teachers were worried he would fail the state proficiency tests because scorers would not be able to read his handwriting. I thought there was a misplaced emphasis on handwriting given how little he would have to do it as he grew up, and I knew how, during transitions in writing technology, historically, similar issues had played out. So I wanted to write about the long history of handwriting to provide historical perspective to changes happening today.
KH: Regarding those transitions, maybe the most useful idea I took away from the book was the reminder that there is always some overlap of the old and the new as things change. I got a kick out of your footnote inviting us to do further reading about the coexistence of printed books and manuscript books in Sven Birket’s book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age — available in print, on the Web, or via e-reader.
AT: Yes! And the transitions are long. Very long. Hundreds of years long!