Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mightier Than the Sword (redux)

So in the various places where these blog posts publish to, I've received some feedback about my adherence to a belief that handwriting is neither dead nor obsolete. These comments seem to fall into two camps. The first camp centers around anecdotal evidence that younger people either don't know how to write cursive or prefer not to.

What you have to understand is that this does not mean that handwriting is dead or even dying. A script is dying, but the ballpoint pen seems to still have a strong heartbeat. In the evolution of handwriting, this is a common occurrence that has happened hundreds of times before as society creates and casts aside the best mode of expressing written thoughts. If it didn't, we would still be practicing our heavy gothic hands and our novels would look like Gutenberg Bibles. (Which would be cool in concept but clunky in practice) I suppose if handwriting didn't evolve, we would actually still be using other languages and other hands, but I think you get the point. Handwriting evolves. Having studied a bit of paleography as research for a recent story, I'm frankly astounded that Parker Penmanship and it's descendants survived as long as they did.

Camp #2 thinks I'm a Luddite, clinging desperately to a past aesthetic and stifling or looking down upon the new mode that is replacing mine.

Systems of written communication evolve and I have no problem with that -- I would not rather be incising ideograms into clay tablets and neither would you. Technology, language and what we could do with language evolved and the mode of transmission had to evolve too.

The survival of handwriting is about neither the persistence of a script nor an aesthetic. It's about how best to express one's thoughts and just as there is no one classroom that will best serve all students, so too there is no one tool of language transmission that will serve all writers or all thoughts. Handwriting is about more than aesthetics, it's a tool of transmission. One tool in an ever-growing toolbox, but the new tool doesn't make the old one obsolete.

Every day at the writing center, we deal with different learning styles. A preference for writing or typing is part of that. As the lady in the New York Times article that set me off last time correctly points out, messy handwriting is not indicative of a second-rate intelligence, but the corollary is that abandonment of handwriting isn't either. And just as we have come to slowly embrace the idea that not all people think and learn best in the same classrooms, so too I think we will come to grasp that not everyone is going to best express themselves at a keyboard, or on a blackberry or with a pen.

This is an argument about how best to interact with the language. Writing by hand does slow us down a bit, and for many it's a good thing. In the earlier post, I believe I mentioned science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. He apparently writes his lengthy novels with a Mont Blanc fountain pen. Typing those ideas into a computer would certainly be quicker and wouldn't require a hireling to take them and type them into a word processing program for transmission to a publisher. But he still chooses to interact with our language through the transmitting medium of pen, ink and paper.

Presumably for a bestselling novelist this isn't because he can't afford a laptop, but because it's how he produces his best work, the toolbox best suited to him. (Incidentally, I'm not saying "Because Neal does it, we all should" or anything of the sort, it's just that I recently noticed his pens and manuscript at the Seattle Sci Fi museum...) A pen is a tool whether it's a goose quill an expensive fountain pen or a Bic you swiped from a bank. So too is a laptop or a cell phone.

The writer who interacts with the language through one medium is in no way inferior or superior to the other simply by the merit of their tools. And the advent of one is not necessarily the death knell for the other. in order for the pen to die, I believe that our language will have to fundamentally change in a way that makes it no longer valid as a tool of expression. With our current assortment of Western languages, however, in my opinion it remains a vital tool that is merely out of fashion at the moment.


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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).