Thursday, March 19, 2009

The spirit of the pen

It’s my experience that however great a change sweeps over us, there is always room for what went before. I guess it’s neatly summed up in the aphorism ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’. All this is the long way round to explaining why I still use a fax. While my faxes are often sent in the form of PDFs, it’s the spirit of the fax that lives on – or should I say the spirit of handwriting. Last year I mentioned how much I value the intimacy of a handwritten postcard, today I want to consider further the power of handwriting.

Anyone who works with me knows that I often communicate in the form of handwritten notes on typed memos. That combination of handwriting and typed text brings a freshness and immediacy I don’t get in email. It’s the contrast. The sense of two different ways of thinking at work together. One making a commentary (or drawing a bullseye) on the other. The message seems to be: we share all this knowledge, but this is what to pay attention to, this is what to get onto next.

From the small number of handwritten notes I receive, I get the feeling that handwriting may be a dying art. That would be a real loss of expression and intimacy.

This thought was echoed by a comment from the BBC. It was reported that registrars of births, deaths, and marriages in the UK remarkably still record in cursive script. The great events of our lives, the connections between past, present, and future, all handwritten. How the data jockeys have allowed this little piece of history slip by them is a mystery, but let’s appreciate this gift for as long as we have it.

Of course the decline or demise of handwriting has been foreseen many times. The invention of the typewriter inspired the usually canny Scientific American to predict in 1867 that, “the weary process of learning penmanship in schools will be reduced to writing one’s own signature and playing on the literary piano”. Nearly 150 years later there’s life in the old pen yet – although the ‘literary piano’ seems to be lost in the attic gathering dust.