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800 Words

Scribbling Rivalry

July 09, 2006|Dan Neil

I am writing this at a cafe table on the city square in Strasbourg, France, literally in the shadow of the city's infamously tall Gothic cathedral. Somewhere in the course of this trip my laptop has gone hors de combat, and so I've brought pen and notepad to the table, pulled up a cafe au lait and started writing out a story in longhand, which I haven't done in about 20 years. This bit of process would be unremarkable except for the fact that--I just noticed--there is a large and rather unflattering bronze of Johann Gutenberg directly ahead. Strasbourg claims the inventor of movable type as its own, though the residents of Mainz, Germany, have something to say about that.

I suppose I could lay it at the pigeon-soiled feet of Gutenberg, or Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, or Bill Gates, the man who killed the typewriter, but somewhere along the way my handwriting has gone from merely awful to just plain pathetic, a half-seized scribble and jot that appears to have been written in the back of a speeding buckboard. This is the handwriting of the criminally insane.

No master of the Palmer method was I, but in college I could write legibly for hours on end. I remember that my writing hand, my left, was more thoroughly muscled and I had a nice, thick callus on my middle finger. Today, thanks to key-stroking, I am so estranged from the manual process of writing that it takes several trial runs and many minutes of tongue-biting concentration to complete a postcard.

How odd it is to sit here and watch my hand twitching and itching across the paper, leaving a broken wake of demi-words behind. The only weak consolation is that my handwriting, like Da Vinci's, could thwart those who would try to learn my secrets. A room full of Robert Langdons and the NSA wouldn't stand a chance.

The decline of handwriting associated with electronic text--word processing, e-mail, instant messaging--is well documented, as are its costs. Back in the '90s there was a spate of patient deaths associated with doctors' scrawl, prompting the American Medical Assn. to make changes in the way prescriptions and medical charts are recorded. Handwriting is apparently destiny. According to graphologists, it's nearly impossible for educators and employers to separate bad handwriting from larger, grosser forms of incompetence--that's not good news for high school students facing the new essay portion of the SAT's.

Mahatma Gandhi himself said that bad handwriting should be regarded "as a sign of an imperfect education." And he didn't even have to take the SAT's.

The sociology of clumsy cursive doesn't bother me half so much as my own decline. I'm feeling a real loss here, as if I've forgotten how to play the violin. As an experiment, I write out the old practice sentence: "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party." I study the paper. It says: "Naw, is thistime for all good mento come tis aid f thur party." It looks like I've been eating flaking paint.

I don't want to get carried away here. I mean, I can get along without longhand. Good penmanship can also be read as a sign of a repressive perfectionism. No kid ever says, "When I grow up I want to be a penman!"

But something is definitely missing. Back when I could write in longhand, I read an essay by the poet Louis Simpson, who said that poetry should never be written on a word processor because its environment of endless and effortless revisability dulls the keenness of poetic thought. It's like rhetorical T-ball, where you have endless swings of the bat until you connect. Simpson argued there was a concentration, and consecration, of verse that happened while the poet considered the commitment of pen to paper.

The same must be true of personal communication. Why is a word-processed love letter problematic? Beyond lacking the warmth and intimacy of script, it is inevitably calculated, the product of careful revision and perfecting polish. As we struggle to get it right, we dissemble, trading sincerity for legibility.

I'm sorry to say that the last love letter I wrote was channeled through Microsoft Word.

Oddly, just as handwriting is heading for the door, it has become an immensely powerful means of communication. College football recruiters now make it a point to send handwritten letters to the most desirable prospects. Think of the thunderclap of excitement, the sense of occasion, when you last received a handwritten letter or even a thank-you note.

Which brings me to the collection of postcards on the table. I'll have to write very slowly, and may even resort to block printing, architect-style. I may waste a few cards and I probably won't get the words exactly right, and yet every one will say: "Wish you were here."

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