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Are pen lovers living on the Planet Nostalgia?

Book Review: Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey

Script and Scribble is a book about taking your time. But, if you’re in a hurry, read the last chapter first, “Is Handwriting Important?,” for a true appreciation of why handwriting is still relevant. Then, wander back to the earlier chapters.

If you suffer from pen lust, as I do, you’ll find yourself thinking “me too, me too” when the author extols the mind-hand connection when we write with a pen – a good pen, perhaps a Mont Blanc or her romantic attachment to an Esterbrook fountain pen.

But when it comes to our "real" writing, we are mostly slaves to the keyboard. In fact, Burns Florey says, keyboarding is generally taught in schools now, instead of handwriting instruction.

Most school children are typing on keyboards at the age when we were still sniffing the 64-pack of Crayola crayons. But children do need to learn to write longhand, and they still need time to think while writing. Handwriting holds the key to our innermost thoughts

The author and I are of the same generation. When learning penmanship in third grade, she recalls: “Something about the low-key creativity, the reach for perfection, and the repetitive mental numbness appealed to me….” I would add an appreciation for the simplicity of slow, focused concentration, which is often lacking in our fast-paced electronic lives today. Reading Script and Scribble took me back to my own third grade experience when I asked my mother how long it would take before I could write as fast as her. "It takes practice," she said. To encourage me, she tolerated my speed-scribbling at the kitchen table, even pretending it was legible.

Script and Scribble is rich with history and provides fascinating research into a realm of communication and thought-processing that may soon disappear.

Are pen lovers living on the “planet of nostalgia,” as the author suggests? Other than writing grocery lists and signing credit card slips, when do we use a pen anymore?

Man has needed the written form of expression since cave dwellers used sharp stones to record their days, using a symbol, such as a drawing of a bison, to document their hunting successes. In fact, Sumerians (circa 4000 BC) used a stylus, not unlike today’s PDA pointing sticks. Egyptians first chiseled words into papyrus leaves and later on parchment. The Romans designed fancy fonts they could scribble as well as the more formal fonts carved in stone.

Educated Romans would carry a stylus at all times. Often they used stylus and wax for ephemeral bits of writing and even for legal documents. For literary purposes, pens were made like a brush with hair, fibers or a reed, called calamus, from which our pens derive. They were then sharpened with a knife and split at the end to absorb ink. This became the model for most future pens, and of course, the origin of the term “pen knife.”

Today’s authors might admire Jane Austen’s productive writing career even more upon learning that she wrote each of her novels with a quill pen, as did Dickens when he slowly penned Great Expectations.

Burns Florey has some fun with her quill research, when she describes quill pen production like this: pluck a feather from a large angry bird, cut away most of the feather bits, harden it in hot sand or plunge it into a vat of acid, cut a slit, trim into a nib, and scrape flat to write. And the quill pen lasted 12 centuries.

Pens changed plenty over time, with writing implements causing tension between aesthetics and utility as demand grew. Today we can instruct the computer to produce an italic font by inserting bracketed symbols around our text. When first invented in Venice around the 1500’s, the italic font created a sensation as “an entirely new design.”

Now we fast forward to metal pens, and fountain pens, which were perhaps loved and hated, similar to our computer mouse frustrations today. After many variations, journalist Laszlo Biro invented the ball point pen in 1938, when he noticed that newspaper ink dried quickly and didn’t smudge. He and his brother developed a rolling ball to creating the first ball point pen. It’s evident from their work that there is a great deal of science and math involved in the series of curves and loops we call our handwriting.

And personal it is. Handwriting was a form of self-presentation but not seen as a sell-expression tool until the late 19th century. Then, handwriting began to be recognized as unique and an indicator of personality traits. Michon, a Parisian priest is quoted as saying: “The slightest movement of the pen is a vibration of soul.”

Author Mary Gordon is quoted saying “Writing by hand is laborious,” she says, "…it involves flesh, blood, and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”

There’s lots more enjoyment in Script and Scribble. The author’s research confirms the importance of teaching writing to children, to focus their attention. Just looking at a letter isn’t going to do it. When young children learn handwriting as they are learning to express their thoughts, the two kinds of writing, one mechanical and one creative, become naturally and inextricably connected in the child’s mind.

“For the rest of us,” says Burns Florey, “the fact that handwriting does hang on-despite everything — seems hopeful and comforting.” So, whether we get a few minutes alone with a nice notebook and pen, or blog wild in a noisy café, let’s keep writing.

And by the way…

This fascinating book is full of valuable information but lacks a detailed index, so while you’re reading Script & Scribble, I suggest you keep a nice pen at hand.

About Helen Gallagher

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