Thursday, February 19, 2009

Responding to "The Curse of Cursive"

I told myself I would not use this blog for topics unrelated to my book collection, but I just had to rant about Jessica Bennett's article in the latest Newsweek ("The Curse of Cursive"). I concur with her opinion that compelling children to learn to handwrite in cursive is archaic and unhelpful and that efforts to preserve that particular chirographic form are more emotional than educational (consider how mutable various hands were in the manuscript culture of early modern England, where writers would employ secretary English and round Italic often mixed within the same word).

However, her claim that "penmanship has been edging toward oblivion for years" is overstated. Her suggestion (quoting Oberlin College Professor of English Anne Trubek) that handwriting is an "historical blip" among writing technologies is woefully historically inaccurate. For one thing, as Peter Beal, Randall McLeod, Walter Ong, and a host of other excellent bibliographic scholars have demonstrated since the 1970s, the ascension of one technology of communication does not immediately (or completely) displace the prior technologies; indeed, the new technology often relies upon the older in order to be successfully adopted (early printed books mimicked the look of scribal manuscripts, just like early silent films mimicked the look of staged theatrical performances, or early word processing softwares replicated the fonts used on typewriters).

I would briefly contest her suggestion, also, that intelligibility of content is unrelated to the form in which that content is presented. The ease with which we can communicate via text message, email, and (yes) blog has led, ironically, to a decrease in our command of language and made us more willing to commit egregiously stupid errors of usage ("No, you cannot 'haz' a cheeseburger."). If the study of book history has proven anything in the last 20 years, it is that content and form are inextricably married; as our reliance on mechanized means of communication that allow for instantaneous and yet coldly ephemeral exchange increases, our concern for creating durable, high quality, articulate content will shrink.

There is another reason we might express a little more concern over the purported decline of handwriting, and I write this now as a scholar of manuscript culture as well as book history. Related to the inseparability of form and content is the wealth of primary source information to be derived from studying the palaeographic details of a written document. As someone who has had experience working with manuscripts from the 17th century and deriving important conclusions about them from textual features alone, I can contest with relative confidence Bennett's suggestion that objections to the disappearance of handwriting are not "historical". The assumption that she makes (using the example of the Declaration of Independence) is that handwritten documents are as homogenous in their form and features as typed documents (an understandable assumption no doubt deriving from the way modern education drills students in consistency in the drawing of letter forms). Any examination of a manuscript document -- a letter, a note, a legal form, a journal, a literary work, even a piece of music -- quickly reveals the fallacy of this assumption. Shakespearean scholars, for example, have found a wealth of information in the single surviving manuscript page in his hand ("Hand D" from the play Sir Thomas More, shown here); without this, there would be a considerable deficit in our knowledge of how Shakespeare's writing process may have worked. When the use of handwriting goes, so too will the ability of future scholars to study and learn from the unique personality, emotion, and sense that handwriting can convey (and that mechanical writing cannot).

I would like to conclude, however, by returning to that phrase "historical blip" and its tacit arrogance about the inferiority of the handwritten medium. Lest we forget, in the roughly 4,500 years that mankind has been using non-pictorial symbols as linear signifiers, handwriting has been (and still remains) the dominant mode of communication (some scholars estimate that as much as 80% of written materials produced in the United States in the last decade were written by hand and not machine). The moveable-type printing press has been in use for about 560 years, or roughly 12% of homo literatus's history; the typewriter for 180 years (or 4% of our writing history); and the personal computer for 33 years (a whopping 0.7%). I do not contest the claim that these mechanized forms of writing will become our most historically prevalent means of communication, but to shrug off the medium that for 88% of our history has been the dominant means of literary expression as an "historical blip" is to betray a blindness to history.

I enjoyed Bennet's brief article, with the exception of that one component of her argument. That particular component, however, I found to be the most fallacious and even offensive thing that I've read in Newsweek since... well, since Yuval Levin's idiotic suggestion--on page 30 of the same issue--that Rush Limbaugh is actually good for our country.

1 comment:

  1. You haz book-learnin.

    Send this in (abridged) to Newseek as a letter.