I waffled a bit on whether the next essay in this sequence should be about handwriting or printing presses, but the former won out, because it came first. By quite a long shot.
You see lots of laments nowadays about how handwriting is “a lost art.” There’s some truth to this; countless things we used to do by hand are now done electronically instead. I started writing on a computer when I was nine, and never looked back — it’s extraordinarily rare for me to write more than a short snippet of fiction or a blog post on paper. But those laments mean “handwriting” in a specific sense, which is the ability to write in an attractive, culturally-approved manner. We haven’t lost the ability to form letters on paper; we just do it differently from how we used to.
I had a conversation about this at one point with my mother, during which she mentioned the increasing percentage of the younger generations who “can’t even read cursive.” I also had some interesting experiences in France, when I asked fans of my novels to write their names in my notebook so I could be sure of spelling them correctly when I signed the books to them. That helped . . . but I found out the hard way that even when printing, handwritten letter-forms aren’t necessarily the same between countries. We have always had many ways of writing.
There’s a reason why paleography, i.e. historical handwriting, is a field of study. While researching the Onyx Court books, I tried to read some records from the seventeenth-century Court of Common Council, but ran aground on the fact that I can’t read secretary hand. The documents were in English, but the only reason I knew that was context. It might as well have been written in cipher.
Handwriting is and always has been about context. Carolingian minuscule took too long to write and used up too much precious page space, so scribes developed the compact and efficient (but not easily legible) blackletter. Secretary hand, so incomprehensible to me, was popular because it was easy to read, and not too hard on the hand of someone who spent their day using a pen; then Carolingian minuscule looped back around through Humanist minuscule to become italic script, very recognizable to us today — and, in an echo of what we talked about last week, some ladies learned the “Italian hand” long before it became broadly popular, because it was easily mastered by people who did not write as often.
When my mother brought up the loss of cursive, I asked her point-blank why it matters. As an aesthetic form, sure — it can be pretty. But why do we need cursive nowadays? Its original merit was its speed, and the fact that keeping the nib of pen on the page meant the ink continued to flow smoothly, rather than spattering or stopping. With modern pens, the latter isn’t an issue, and if we aren’t writing huge amounts by hand, the former is nice but not required.
This isn’t just an issue for the Latin alphabet, of course. Every language in the world has multiple ways of writing it, which have changed over time and between contexts. Casual scrawls differ from fine handwriting, and both often differ from signage or monumental inscriptions. Japanese written with a pencil or a ballpoint pen lacks the nuances that help distinguish one kind of stroke from another, making it more difficult for me to read, and god help me when I’m faced with calligraphy; at the extreme end, that stuff might as well be abstract art for all I can parse it.
There’s no clear boundary between nice handwriting and calligraphy; many of the styles we refer to as “calligraphy” now were just “writing” back in the day. But in the pursuit of aesthetic ends, scribes have pushed the boundaries of writing to the point where they blur over into decorative art, relegating legibility to a tertiary concern at best. Chinese cursive script can reduce characters that ordinarily take twenty strokes to write down to only three; Islamic calligraphy plays with the proportions and overlap of letters to mold the whole text into the desired shape, whether that’s a round medallion or the figure of a bird.
Even without going to the realm of fine art, having good handwriting has often been seen as a necessary social accomplishment for people (especially men) of quality. Graphology per se is a modern concept, but the idea that someone’s handwriting reveals something about them is an old one, and a messy or ugly “hand” could make you look stupid or boorish. By contrast, developing your own individual flourishes might be part of your maturation; the earliest texts in Queen Elizabeth I’s hand are so much like her tutor’s writing that we can’t be certain all of them are her work, but later on she grew into a style of her own. (And then she took the throne, and her “running hand” — i.e. cursive — devolved into the sixteenth-century equivalent of doctor handwriting. It looks like she wrote it while running.)
There’s even a security measure to all of this. Italic hand wasn’t just dismissed because it was so easy ladies could learn it; its simplicity also made it easier to forge, which made it less desirable than secretary hand for official documents. A similar thing is true of the Islamic Diwani script — so named because it was used in the Ottoman diwan or council of state. And when I asked my mother what utility cursive still has, she said we need it for signatures, to make them harder to copy.
I don’t think cursive has lost its place in the world, nor handwriting more generally. When I started using a fountain pen, I discovered that cursive is far more comfortable than I remember it being; there may be some truth to the article I read years ago, which blames crappy Bic ballpoint pens, not computers, for the decline in the handwriting art. But I think it helps to see handwriting in its full context — as a thing which is shaped by its context, and will always take forms that suit the needs of the moment.