How many cards did you send this holiday season? Probably fewer than 10 years ago. And how many did you receive? Probably fewer again. Whatever the case, wasn't there a small burst of pleasure at seeing a once-familiar hand on the envelope, among all the dreary waste of modern postal delivery? Did you not feel that someone you knew had, for once, reached out and greeted you, in a way that an email or a text never could?
Handwriting is less important in our lives than it has ever been. In a British survey carried out in June, it was discovered that the average time since an adult wrote anything at all by hand was 41 days. One in three people surveyed said that they hadn't written anything by hand for at least six months. Two out of three said that the last thing they wrote was for their eyes only—a hastily scribbled note, a shopping list or a reminder.
If you speak to people about their handwriting, it isn't long before you hear someone use the word 'ashamed.
Does it matter? Things change, after all. Who cares that the fax machine came and went, or the illuminated manuscript, or the LP, then the CD? Surely, the content is all that matters, not how it is conveyed—and handwriting is difficult to read, can't be both passed on and kept, is laborious to make. Why does its disappearance matter?
In the past, handwriting was seen as the key to personal improvement and as an important way to understand other people, both those we knew and complete strangers. The 19th-century handwriting reformer Platt Rogers Spencer explicitly said that by practicing handwriting, he was able to turn away from drunken dissipation to a modest, useful life, and he thought that other people could follow the same route. We laugh at that, and probably, too, at later reformers like A.N. Palmer and Vere Foster, who thought that handwriting practice could lead to constructive careers in commerce or the public service. Such views seem so naively Victorian now.
But research conducted at the University of Virginia in 1989 found that at state schools where bad handwriting was specifically addressed, the pupils had not just improved handwriting but better reading skills, better word recognition, better compositional skills and better recall from memory—just as Platt Rogers Spencer would have predicted. Those small rituals of pen-sucking and chewing seem to shape a person's character and potential; the resulting marks on paper both form and reveal the person who made them.
From the 19th century onward, attempts have been made to show how a personality is revealed by handwriting. The mock-science of graphology can seem absurd, and it's hard to see how it can have any hard basis in fact. But we all come to conclusions about people based on their handwriting, and sometimes these conclusions can be surprisingly accurate.
Graphology is an attempt to formalize what we already intuitively know about handwriting—that it forms a direct and intimate bridge between two people. We know, deep down, that there's nothing to match the communication with a pen on paper, and we tend to connect this feeling with our highest intentions. Sales of fountain pens and luxury paper are rising hugely, by 70% in one recent year. We know that a love letter or letter of condolence still needs to be on paper, written by hand, to be worth anything.
If you speak to people about their handwriting, it is not long before you hear someone use the word "ashamed." (No wonder, when it's only intermittently taught in schools!) But who was ever quick to declare his or her shame over, say, conversational skills? It's interesting that shame over this subject comes so quickly to people's lips; it confirms that there's something very personal about handwriting and how well or badly one does it.
This embarrassment, I suspect, is part of what's driving the decline of the handwritten note in favor of the text message and the social media comment.
But it's an unfortunate trend. Handwriting can be untidy and malformed and difficult to read, but there is always going to be someone who recognizes even the worst of handwritings and treasures it because of who it comes from. The handwritten letter from a soldier at the front; a letter from a boy on a first solo trip abroad, discovering the world and having lots to talk about; letters from a son who has just gone away to university for the first time—these were all common things until very recently.
The ready communication through electronic means that has replaced the handwritten letter is wonderful. But we have definitely lost something here, and those Skype, email and text exchanges won't be treasured in the way that my teenage letters, scribbled journals and postcards have been for years.
Many people have, in a box somewhere, their grandparents' letters and postcards, and they think of them as treasured possessions. They are. But these days, to tell other people about these possessions, we reach for electronic media. We write something that, in five years, will have completely vanished—and will never mean as much as a pen, and a choice of ink, and some well-chosen words on paper.