I’m thinking about the fact of my 65th birthday, which is today, and also of the disappearance of writing, that is, the composition of text as put to paper.
My age enters into this topic because, as a “baby boomer,” I was schooled in the art of penmanship (chirography, cursive writing). Hours and hours were spent in grades three to six, copying letters of the alphabet onto newsprint paper with faint green lines resembling staves of music (penmanship paper) from placards mounted across the top of black chalkboards . The placards consisted of Upper- and lower-case letters–Aa Bb Cc, etc.–with tiny arrows indicating the starting point and direction of flow of every curve: a precise art form depicting where rolling hills of m’s and n’s should rise and fall, how tall to make t’s and where to cross them.
These days, there’s a move toward eliminating cursive writing from elementary school curricula. Proponents say that keyboarding serves a greater function, and, given the dominating use of computers in every facet of our lives, their point is understood. But, as in all things, balance is the key.
When I read letters from the Civil War era written by people with no more than eight years of formal education, I am often struck dumb by their eloquent use of language and the mode (penmanship) by which it is imparted. Were I to read their words on a computer screen, I surely would be impressed, but seeing their words as they were formed in their own hand–a physical extension of their very being–is like studying a sculpture. Much of what informs us about the past is in the art of writing. Think about Mesopotamian cuneiform, Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Arabic script, Phoenician and Cyrillic alphabets. Hurried scrawls or carefully sculpted alphabetical figures tell us about the person who made them. What will standard, computer-formed scripts say about those who typed them?
Handwriting as a practical matter seems to be on its way out; we have perhaps evolved beyond its common need. Will people stop signing their names, except electronically–go back to the days of making a mark, such as an “x?” As art, penmanship is as essential as a graceful dance move, or a note from a violin hanging in the air like a high cloud that melts into a blue, summer sky.