Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mightier than the sword...

Start by reading this short post in the New York Times sent to me by my friend Denny:  
Why Handwriting is History

This is today's "Big Idea"? Handwriting is dead, long live the Blackberry! Stop teaching kids to write things by hand, man, that crap's old hat. Teaching handwriting skills is clinging to a romantic and Luddite notion of things best allowed to die. “Thus for monks, print was capricious and script reliable..." and all attachment to handwriting is romantic nonsense. Sentimentality that just slows us down, impedes our thoughts.

Next you'll tell me that painting is "dead" because the sable brush is inferior to the brush tool in Adobe Illustrator.

To begin with, I can only assume that the scholar being quoted knows that the monks purported distrust of the printing press is is much the same as auto workers distrust of robots. It's not about sentimental attachment or reliability, it's about being replaced by a machine. Gutenberg's press was the death knell of the monastic scriptorium. The printing press turned books from a rich man's plaything into an exchange of ideas accessible to the burgeoning middle class.

I'm sure that on the level of the scribes themselves, there was a great deal of sniffing about how fast a Bible could be produced debasing the meditative act of carefully crafting each page, etcetera. But on the macro level, the ecclesiastic objections to the printing press wasn't about speed or a misplaced sentimentality about handwriting, it was mostly about losing their monopoly on the transmission of ideas. It was about a loss of control.

Speed wasn't the enemy of the scribe. Shorthand has been around as long as writing itself. It seems that no sooner was the first alphabet codified than some jerk was figuring out a way to make it quicker. Formal texts have always been beautiful creations just as the books on the shelves behind me bear little semblance to the notebooks of the writers that created them. The workaday writings of the early scribes were likewise utilitarian in nature. Early scribes used wax tablets as notebooks because the wax could be 'erased' by rubbing out the marks. Cuneiform arose out of a need to create account books and receipts. The mental image of writing as a mystical act played into the power dynamics of the Babylonians and Egyptians and on down through the ages to the advent of Gutenberg's press. But in truth, it was a largely utilitarian affair. Carolingian court documents are almost illegible because each monk had his own peculiar blend of ligature, ideogram and symbol to get him from the top of the page to the bottom. Medieval monks weren't nearly so prissy about scripts as the article implies. They weren't skeptical of speed, they were skeptical about the idea of teaching the common people to read and write at all. To say otherwise is to betray an ignorance of history or far worse in my mind, to be misrepresenting history in hopes no one will notice.

As a rule, I hate sweeping generalizations. Many notable writers today (including the futurist Neal Stephenson, mind you) hand-write entire manuscripts before they're ever committed to a computer. Dismissing the practice as worthless sentimentality is absurd. The faster road is not inherently superior to the slower. Cormac McCarthy chooses to write his award-winning novels on a typewriter. There's something that happens in the writing process that binds the creator with his or her work, and making any sweeping claim that one method of creation is better than all others just because it's newer and faster is an unsupportable thesis. And the idea that transmission of thought into text should never slow you down ignores the fact that this is part of its function and benefit. The additional conceit that teaching legibility is somehow wrong is also anathema to me.

Nevertheless, I say you should write your stories on a Blackberry, typing with your thumbs, or carve it into a clay tablet or scribble it in a Moleskine with a pencil or type it in the usual fashion on typewriter or laptop as most of us do. If you're creating words from electrical impulses jumping around your cerebrum, no one gets to tell that you are doing it wrong. The writing should never be an obstacle to expression of ideas. That much we agree on. But likewise it should not be an obstacle to understanding the idea. Any thought that is encoded in illegible gibberish will be an idea wasted. Legibility at a faster rate -- that was what Parker wanted for his students. Typing can give us that. But to cease teaching handwriting altogether is to remove a valuable tool from the table, and that we should never do.

We should learn from the artists who may add tools without taking the old ones away. Pens, pencils, brushes, palette knives, fingertips, pastels, charcoal and even the brush tool on their computer's drawing program are equally valuable as they search for the one that best suits their personal expression. No one is inherently better than the other and the artist who uses canvas and brush is not a romantic sentimentalist, inferior to the computer animator. Whatever tool you choose, wield it wisely and well. And if you get a chance, use it to poke people who tell you it's just so much romantic nonsense.

Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of historical suspense. His current novel is The Palimpsest and is working on a new project tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).