The Decline And Fall Of Handwriting

Sanjay Sipahimalani
Dead Tree Diaries
Opinions - IN

Languishing in remote corners of publishers' warehouses must be piles of mildewed books that claim to understand human beings through their handwriting. Yellowing pages devoted to the way you dot your 'i's and cross your 't's, with each characteristic loop, slant and curlicue identifying you as introverted, sociable, pathological or a unique combination of the three. ("Lines sloping downward? Looks you need some Prozac at once!") Graphology, it's called, from graphos, writing, and logos, word. If I'm not mistaken, there was even one such volume that claimed to make you change your life simply by changing your handwriting.

Whether such analysis is science or mumbo-jumbo, handwriting itself is in irreversible decline. Most prefer nowadays to strike or touch keyboards, with the result that the knowledge of an art we spent years painstakingly perfecting now lies gathering dust in our synapses. Heidi Harralson, a Tucson graphologist, was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I'm seeing an increase in inconstancy in the handwriting and poor form level — sloppy, semi-legible script that's inconsistent." I feel your pain, Heidi: I used to be proud of my cursive style, now lying in tatters. Once, doctors were famously derided for illegible handwriting; now all of our scribbled notes look like medical prescriptions.

The exception to this disuse has to be the legions of hapless school and college students who, out of necessity, take notes in classes and write examination papers. I can still feel, on the first joint of the middle finger of my right hand, the vestiges of the callus that appeared every time examinations neared. (I also shudderingly recall filling up answer sheets with a fountain pen in an examination hall during a power cut, with sweat dripping off my forehead onto the paper and blotting my deathless prose.)

Students apart, there are some, including authors, who still claim to prefer writing by hand — at least for their first drafts — as they feel it creates a direct connection between the brain and the hand that composes. Neil Gaiman, for instance, has said that one reason he likes writing by hand is that "it slows me down a little, but it also forces me to keep going: I'm never going to spend half a day noodling with a sentence to try and get it just right, if I'm using a pen. I'll do all that when I start typing." Fair point. Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, claims to use both modes of writing, but "when sentences were in my handwriting, I found it difficult to be objective about their quality. I either thought they were too good, or I thought they were too bad. I was either too critical of them or not critical enough. I couldn't have proper distance."

Fountain pen manufacturers may extol the virtues of their workmanship, pedigree and ability to convey sophistication — much like purveyors of wristwatches — but for those of us who aren't authors, occasions to write by hand are fewer and farther between. Letters have given way to e-mail and even greeting cards and postcards, which by their very nature needed hand-written messages, are being edged out by their e-versions. Avid diarists too, one presumes, are lured into recording their thoughts on computer screens rather than in lavender-scented, cloth-bound volumes. The pen isn't mightier than the keyboard.

Lamentations, though, are of little use. It's not in the nature of tides, as King Canute discovered, to go into reverse gear. One imagines medieval monks shaking their heads in sorrow at the invention of the printing press, claiming that this would put paid to books as they knew them, followed by rows of copyists hanging up their quills. Similar sentiments must have stirred in the hearts of those who used clay tablets and bone styluses when they came across people employing new-fangled objects such as reeds and papyri.

The art of longhand may continue to be practiced in shopping lists, short scribbles in notebooks and hasty business memos, but the writing's clearly on the wall. Amid all the elegies for the printed book that are appearing thick and fast nowadays, spare a thought for the humble handwritten line, doomed to survive only in the vaults of memory.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a writer with an advertising agency in Mumbai. His book reviews are collected at Antiblurbs.