Michael Dirda on 'Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting' by Kitty Burns Florey

  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 1, 2009


The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

By Kitty Burns Florey

Melville House. 190 pp. $22.95

Like many people over the age of 40, I still have a callused knobby excrescence on the third finger of my right hand, the place where pencils and ballpoints and fountain pens have been resting ever since I first began to learn the Palmer method of cursive handwriting. Kids no longer have this "writer's bump," since cursive isn't seriously taught any more. For the most part, young people born into the computer age can, by focusing hard, just about sign their names in longhand, but otherwise they rely almost entirely on printing or, more and more often, keyboarding. Today Truman Capote would have to quip: "That's not writing, that's word processing."

Sad to say, I just typed the above paragraph on a laptop. No handwriting implements were involved in the production of those sentences.

I do feel mildly guilty about this: In four broken coffee cups scattered artfully around my desk are a half-dozen fountain pens -- among them an old Esterbrook (a gift from the writer Glenway Wescott), a Pelikan with an italic nib, a handsome Namiki retractable -- and scores of Bics, rollerballs, felt tips and gel markers, as well as innumerable pencils, most of them with the names of museums, universities or other cultural sites etched on their sides. As it happens, I do use most of these hand tools of the writer's trade, usually the pencils, when scribbling notes in the margins of books I'm reviewing. Nonetheless, so poor is my script that these notes often turn indecipherable even to me after just a few hours. It's seriously frustrating to read: "The really important point is amxiwyby sowkymx, rather than roeqcz or kfghi."

As Kitty Burns Florey points out in her highly enjoyable Script and Scribble, clear and readable handwriting does matter: "The TV drama ER often tackles the issue: in one 2007 episode, Dr. Izzie Stevens tells the interns she's supervising, 'Penmanship saves lives! Is that a 7, or is that a 9? If I have to ask myself that in the middle of an emergency, your patient is dead. You killed him. With your handwriting. Think about that!' "

In contrast to medical cacography, which can kill us, calligraphy -- that is, "beautiful writing" -- simply takes our breath away. The novelist John Crowley, for instance, is almost as well known for the elegance of his handwriting as for the elegance of his prose -- which is why a special edition of Little, Big sold out so quickly: Subscribers could choose a favorite passage, and Crowley would personally copy it out for them. Once, following a lecture by the professional scribe Sheila Waters, I managed to snag the big pieces of paper upon which she casually drew her magnificent O's, A's and M's. Even these throwaways were so striking that I had them framed and hung on a wall of my apartment.

Script and Scribble actually mentions Waters, as well as one of her most famous commissions: a handwritten and illuminated copy of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. But a mention is almost all we get, and before long Florey is on to some other aspect of handwriting practice and history. Because she's witty and often endearingly autobiographical (she includes illustrations from her third-grade writing workbook), the reader is happy to follow her into any byway of penmanship. Still, this account of "the rise and fall of handwriting" never aims to be more than a breezily enjoyable introduction. Those seriously intrigued by the subject will want to go on to the books that Florey mentions, in particular Edward Johnston's classic Writing & Illuminating & Lettering and Wilfred Blunt's Sweet Roman Hand: Five Hundred Years of Italic Cursive Script.

That said, Script and Scribble really is charming and does offer chapters on such matters as the origin of letter forms, the development of the pen and pencil, and the evolution of various schools of handwriting practice in America. In our history the great names are Platt Rogers Spencer, whose much admired script will be familiar from the distinctive Coca-Cola logo, and A.N. Palmer, whose methods for teaching cursive dominated the lives of elementary school students for most of the last century. Palmer himself learned from a writing master named George Gaskell, author of several practical works, among them Gaskell's Compendium of Forms, Educational, Social, Legal and Commercial. That desirable volume includes sample letters such as this delightful one from a concerned mother to her daughter away at school: "I have been somewhat alarmed because your last two letters do not run in that strain of unaffected piety as formerly. What, my dear, is the reason? Does virtue appear unpleasant to you? Are you resolved to embark in the fashionable follies of a gay, unthinking world?"

Am I alone in regretting the disappearance of such elegantly corseted prose? Probably.

One chapter of Script & Scribble may seem slightly out of place: A longish account of graphology, the interpretation of character through the study of how one shapes letters and words. Florey seems to half believe in this pseudo-science, even as she recognizes how authorities pooh-pooh its supposed findings and predictions: She notes, for instance, that "the British Psychological Society ranks graphology alongside astrology: both possess 'zero validity' in determining personality."

My favorite chapter, that on "Writing By Hand in a Digital Age," opens with several pages about contemporary novelists who still use pens for at least their initial drafts: Mary Gordon, Paul Auster, J.K. Rowling, Toni Morrison ("pencil and yellow pad"), Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, Patrick Leigh Fermor, William Boyd, Jim Harrison and Wendell Berry, among others. Even the prolific Stephen King likes to write in longhand: "He was forced to do so when sitting at the computer became painful after he was struck by a car in 1999, and continues to prefer it." In this chapter, Florey also discusses the value of manuscripts and rough drafts in deepening our understanding of the published poem or novel. Today, though, she concludes that the only place where extended writing by hand commonly continues is in the keeping of diaries.

While Florey clearly (and rightly) admires Portland, Ore., where the schools teach italic handwriting, she ends by advocating a stripped-down blend of italic and printing as a possible ideal for classrooms. I wish. Alas, as she herself writes, "In the world of incessant testing and 'No Child Left Behind,' there's scant time for handwriting instruction. For the most part, beautiful penmanship now lives on the planet where people gather around the piano and sing, watch Gunsmoke on TV, and go to major-league baseball games in the afternoon: it's the planet of nostalgia."

Who would disagree? But some of us happen to love that old planet. After reading Script and Scribble, I feel like digging out my beat-up calligraphy manuals by Tom Gourdie, Marie Angel and Lloyd J. Reynolds. Of course, I also need to clean out the dried ink from my italic pen. But before you know it, even Ludovico Arrighi -- the great Renaissance master of italic -- will be envying my p's and q's. ยท

Michael Dirda can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company