When Philip Hensher realized that he didn’t know what a close friend’s handwriting looked like (“bold or crabbed, sloping or upright, italic or rounded, elegant or slapdash”), he felt that something essential was missing from their friendship. It dawned on him that having abandoned pen and paper for keyboards, we have lost one of the ways by which we come to recognize and know another person. People have written by hand for thousands of years— how, Hensher wondered, have they learned this skill, and what part has it played in their lives?
The Missing Ink tells the story of this endangered art. Hensher introduces us to the nineteenth-century handwriting evangelists who traveled across America to convert the masses to the moral worth of copperplate script; he examines the role handwriting plays in the novels of Charles Dickens; he investigates the claims made by the practitioners of graphology that penmanship can reveal personality.
But this is also a celebration of the physical act of writing: the treasured fountain pens, chewable ballpoints, and personal embellishments that we stand to lose. Hensher pays tribute to the warmth and personality of the handwritten love note, postcards sent home, and daily diary entries. With the teaching of handwriting now required in only five states and many expert typists barely able to hold a pen, the future of handwriting is in jeopardy. Or is it? Hugely entertaining, witty, and thought-provoking, The Missing Ink will inspire readers to pick up a pen and write.
Attempting to document the value of handwriting and make the case against its disappearance, this book satisfies the former goal better than the latter. Novelist, columnist, and art critic Hensher (The Northern Clemency) sets out bemoaning the decline of handwriting in daily life, and his conclusion that handwriting should hold a spot in our hearts similar to that of cooking a meal from scratch, while sensible, arrives as predictable. The body of the work contains more interest than its bookends, examining how handwriting became a universal skill in Western society. Chapters on the Protestant-ethic genesis of copperplate and the pseudoscience of graphology, in particular, prove fascinating. Hensher punctuates this history with eight engaging though meandering short interviews with individuals and groups about handwriting in their daily lives. Overall, the book is not cohesive-the section on forgeries of Hitler's handwriting, for instance, feels out-of-place, and a page-long anecdote about italic script, signifying for Hensher the preparation for death, is frustratingly murky. The value, limitation, history, and decline of handwriting are undeniably topics worth examining, but the book only fills half the glass of discursive possibility. 30 b&w illus. Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge & White. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Faber & Faber
November 27, 2012
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