07 May 2008

Nostalgia for handwriting: it's love th@ m@ters

Words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think. ~ Byron

On a recent vacation, having deliberately divested myself of all digital devices, I experienced once again the pleasure of applying pen to paper and transposing the words in my head into the scrawled combinations of graphemes we call handwriting. There is no describing my satisfaction in filling a page with cursive script, nor the miracle of being able to read it back to myself, especially when about half of the content is in my own idiosyncratic shorthand. Why, then, am I writing about my little ink-stained indulgence in Google Docs, for ultimate posting to my blog?

The commanding presence of computers and their keyboards in my life has left little room for pen and pencil. It's so much easier to martial ideas and manipulate text using software. As it neatly telegraphs itself in German, "Laptop auf, Google an!" The computer facilitates the process of writing, and so much more besides. But like my attachment to printed books and paper manuscripts, the love of handwriting is still there, perhaps fostered by a childhood that knew no keyboarding — I first used a typewriter in high school, and a manual one at that. My school days were marked, and liberally spotted, by old-fashioned straight pens. I still remember the smell of the inkwell on my desk, the feel of my pen's stained cork hand-grip, and the distinctive rasping and scratching of many nibs as my classmates and I learned our ABCs.

Now my work compels me to interact with digital text and images for the better part of the day. Years of typing and mouse manipulation have wreaked predictable havoc on the tendons of my forearms. Writer's cramp was easier to deal with. At this point you are probably expecting a rant against the soulless reign of technology, but I shall have to disappoint. I actually enjoy most aspects of computing, especially the flexibility and maybe-I'll-try-that freedom of word and image processing in all its extraordinary variety. At the same time I have my fond memories of the dull pencils, nib-torn pages, smudges, leaky ballpoints, ink blots, and boo-boos of that older world of paper, not to mention the now antique art of typewriting. Underwoods really have had their day, but handwriting is indispensable it seems. Beyond the intrinsic appeal of calligraphic expression, I find it more practical for the recording of thoughts, the exchange of intimacies, note taking, appointment scheduling, grocery list making, and other obiter scripta. No electronic gadget has appealed much to me as a tool for this kind of task. And who, for instance, would feel truly comfortable emailing condolences to a friend whose parent has died? Whether a sonnet or a laundry list, a written document is a hand-produced, human thing. Writing is something handed down. It is part of our history and our most cherished invention after language itself: the perfect tool to record everything our wagging tongues could come up with, from gossip to the oracles of a god. You could say I have a nostalgia for handwriting.

As a counterpart to my computer use, I have tried for many years to order my life with a Palm handheld; but I've grown weary of fussing with it. I'm tired of flubbed Graffiti strokes and poorly aimed taps. There is the persistent mild anxiety caused by having to remember to sync or recharge the battery. I miss the old standard paper calendar books, not just for the ease of whipping them out and quickly scribbling the information I need to record in them, but also for the satisfaction of leafing through past editions, watching the history of my work life flow by as I turn the pages, reminding myself of important people, conversations, random thoughts, aper├žus — all charmingly preserved on somewhat dog-eared paper.

A handheld's calendar cannot reproduce paper's tangible presence. Yes, software is efficient; screen resolution and storage are phenomenal; but my experience has been that, once past, events tend to slide inexorably into virtual oblivion. Months and years moulder into an indiscriminate bog of old data. What is lacking is the rich hermeneutical humus of varying inks or pencil types, pen pressures, private doodlings, coffee spills, annotations, underlinings, paper clip reminders, sticky attachments, crossings-out, etc. of a paper journal. Perhaps a future technology will make my complaint look petulant and uncool. I know that digital equivalents of all the above are available (well, perhaps not the coffee spills). But somehow a computer's clean, smooth surfaces act as barriers, depriving me of the all-important visual and tactile experience of paper. New developments in computer technology will doubtless bring better interfaces. When we get the optimum combination of microprocessor power and improved software, handwriting — although this time on a friendlier and ferociously sensitive digital medium — might become popular again. Who is to say where technological development will take us? It's becoming harder to follow the changes and hence to predict futures. As Wallace McLendon has written:

Ten years ago tracking technology was easier. A technology — like PDAs — flew solo, independent of other technologies, like a bird flying outside of a flock. Now technology is immersed in the flock and the flock moves as if each technology is connected. The pattern of a single technology is not as interesting or revealing as it used to be, even if we were able to extract it from the circuits and chips it shares. ... [F]uture technological innovations will be a flock of technology changes shifting and darting together over time continuous.

The demise of handwriting?

My reflections on handwriting give rise to the following questions: Has the computer led to the demise of handwriting? Is our cultural life diminished as a result? Will this loss also affect our language?

It's obvious that there has been a decline, as linguist David Crystal points out in a recent post, but "demise" is an exaggeration. Handwriting is going to be with us for some time to come. People attach great significance to handwritten documents: their "graphaesthetics" (writing style, paper choice, etc.), and what we can deduce from them about the writer's mood, personality, or status. Analyzing a writer's hand is also of vital importance to literary critics, teachers, historians, psychiatrists, forensic scientists, and the lovelorn.

There appears to be little danger to the English language from the millions of tapping fingers and thumbs out there, although anyone on the grumpy side of the Gr8 Db8 on "txting" may demur. I wrote about the phenomenon of Netspeak last October, quoting Martin Amis' very funny take on male genital insecurity and text messaging in his novel Yellow Dog:
... take my word 4 it, clint, u don't want a bloody great 2l. ... they're overr8ed! i h8 them! & what an un4tun8 effect it has on the ego: ... it's not size th@ m@ters, clint. it's love th@ m@ters.

There is no obvious connection between the loss of handwriting and the formal state of a language, as might manifest itself in such areas as vocabulary and grammar. The issues raised by the potential disappearance of handwriting seem to be more psychological and social than linguistic. The use of handwriting has indeed declined, but the language is alive and well, on our loose lips and on the web. Compared to the sinister euphemisms of Big Media, or the nerve-deadening sloganeering of corporate-speak, the lively twitter of real people is quite refreshing. Texting is often criticized, but is it really the bleak, bald, sad shorthand that some accuse it of being, masking dyslexia, poor spelling, and mental laziness? In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite. The texting system of conveying sounds and meaning goes back all the way to the origins of writing. Far from hindering literacy, texting may turn out to help it. Homo loquens at its best.

Could it also be that blogging as a technology is partially making up for the lack of a thoughtful, personalized graphic medium like the traditional diary? The popularity of blogging and other forms of individual expression online may have something to do with a certain nostalgia for paper and ink. While at present there is no substitute for the ease and comfort of typing (or even dictating) words into a computer, there will always be a place for handwriting. When the technology improves, I shall be happy to take up my stylus and handwrite my memoirs and my villanelles, even letters of condolence, onto a light, solid-state digital tablet. If writing is a labour of love, we shouldn't be too concerned about the tools employed. For it's love th@ m@ters.