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The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting

The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting

by Philip Hensher

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When Philip Hensher realized that he didn’t know what one of his closest friend’s handwriting looked like, he felt that something essential was missing from their friendship. It dawned on him that, having abandoned fountain pens for keyboards, we have lost one of the ways by which we come to recognize and know another person.

The Missing Ink


When Philip Hensher realized that he didn’t know what one of his closest friend’s handwriting looked like, he felt that something essential was missing from their friendship. It dawned on him that, having abandoned fountain pens for keyboards, we have lost one of the ways by which we come to recognize and know another person.

The Missing Ink tells the story of this endangered art. Hensher reflects on what handwriting can tell us about personality and personal history: are your own letters neat and controlled or messy and inconsistent? Did you shape your penmanship in worshipful imitation of a popular girl at school, or do you still use the cursive you were initiated into in the second grade? Hensher guides us through Arabic calligraphy and the story of the nineteenth-century handwriting evangelists who traveled across America to convert the masses to the moral worth of copperplate; he pays tribute to the warmth and personality of a handwritten note.

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? Just as Lynne Truss inspired a new generation of grammarians and Simon Garfield unveiled the exciting world of typefaces, Philip Hensher will inspire readers to pick up a pen and write. The Missing Ink brings all his considerable knowledge and self-effacing humor to bear on a book that will enlighten and thrill.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Abigail Meisel
Bemoaning the decline of the written hand smacks of fogyism, but the British novelist Philip Hensher…enlivens his musings about penmanship's demise with sharp insights and wry wit…Like a charming dinner guest, he brims with fun facts, good humor and amusing reminiscences.
Publishers Weekly
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.)
Kirkus Reviews
Critic and novelist Hensher (Creative Writing/Univ. of Exeter; King of the Badgers, 2012, etc.) laments the loss of handwriting instruction and surveys the history of our love affair with the pen. After some introductory comments about the once-important but now diminishing significance of handwriting in our culture, the author zooms back a few thousand years for a glimpse at the invention of writing. He then gradually moves forward to look at the various styles and techniques and teaching philosophies that once rose, reigned and fell. He occasionally inserts minichapters (all called "Witness") that comprise interviews with people of differing ages, genders and professions discussing their handwriting, how they learned it and how they feel about it. (These are not the most riveting sections of the text.) Hensher looks closely at the methods that once were prominent--copperplate, Spencer, Palmer and others--and offers some surprising tidbits along the way--e.g., hand printing (as opposed to script) did not emerge until the early 20th century. The author also discusses the handwriting of significant historical figures ranging from Dickens to Hitler; talks about the role of handwriting in literature from Sherlock Holmes to Proust; charts the history of the quill, the steel nib and ink; and sketches the history of the "pseudo-science of graphology." He waxes ironic and amusing, too, several times suggesting that a person who dot his i's with little hearts is a "moron." The author ends with a wistful list of things we might do to save the dying art. Informative, amusing and idiosyncratic--just like an interesting letter written in unique hand.
From the Publisher

“Rediscover the joys of writing . . . Like a charming dinner guest, [Hensher] brims with fun facts, good humor and amusing reminiscences . . . [He] enlivens his musings about penmanship's demise with sharp insights and wry wit.” —Abigail Meisel, The New York Times Book Review

“An ode to a dying form: part lament, part obituary, part sentimental rallying cry . . . Eloquent . . . There remains something wonderful about receiving a letter that has been physically touched--actually crafted--by the hands of your correspondent.” —Julia Turner, Slate

“Lively.” —Gregory Leon Miller, San Francisco Chronicle

“We all communicate, of course (tweet tweet tweet, and yack yack yack on the mobile), but not by pen and ink. Does it matter? I didn't have to read 274 pages to be persuaded that it does, but I am very glad indeed that those pages were written and that I have read them. From this book, the wisest and wittiest argument imaginable for the preservation of handwriting, I have learnt so much, and by it have been so happily entertained, that I am compelled to recommend it to everyone.” —Diana Athill, The Literary Review

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
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6.58(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.96(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Missing Ink

The Lost Art of Handwriting

By Philip Hensher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Philip Hensher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86547-894-7



'No, I didn't learn handwriting. Well, in every lesson, with the letters, I suppose. Not handwriting as such. I'm seventy – I don't know how old I am. I can't remember. It's legible, my handwriting. Which is more than you can say for your father. It's not got a lot of style to it, my handwriting. It's most important that people can read your handwriting.

'My eldest sister is left-handed, so it always looks awkward, watching her write. I can't remember what my younger sister's handwriting was like. It's thirty years since she died. My father's writing was illegible. No form to the letters. My mother's was upright and round, a little bit like mine, I expect.

'I worked in an office in Wolverhampton, working in stock control, and you depended on people being able to read your handwriting, because they were sending orders out, so it was me who kept the records. Nothing was done on computers then. There were little coloured stickers – red meant re-order, and green, we've got plenty. I had a very nice boss in stock control. They couldn't have children, and they adopted a little girl, and I used to go and babysit for them, often.'

Interviewer: 'You'd have been what, seventeen?'

'Oh, I don't know – why does he want me to – it was the year of the Suez crisis, when I learnt to drive. Because when the Suez crisis was on, you were allowed to drive without people sitting with you. And so if you got in a mess, you had to get yourself out of it. I remember my father standing at the window, watching me back out of the drive, and I drove straight into the stone gateposts. Bang.'


M.H., retired librarian, 75



About six months ago, I realized that I had no idea what the handwriting of a good friend of mine looked like. I had known him for over a decade, but somehow we had never communicated using handwritten notes. He had left messages for me, e-mailed me, sent text messages galore. But I don't think I had ever had a letter from him written by hand, a postcard from his holidays, a reminder of something pushed through my letterbox. I had no idea whether his handwriting was bold or crabbed, sloping or upright, italic or rounded, elegant or slapdash.

The odd thing is this. It had never struck me as strange before, and there was no particular reason why it had suddenly come to mind. We could have gone on like this forever, hardly noticing that we had no need of handwriting any more.

This book has been written at a moment when, it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether. Is anything going to be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper? Will some part of our humanity, as we have always understood it, disappear as well? To answer these questions, I've gone back to look at some aspects of writing with a pen on paper. I'm going to talk about the pioneers who interested themselves in teaching handwriting, and in particular styles: in the nineteenth century, the Americans Platt Rogers Spencer and A.N. Palmer, with their corporate copperplate, and the English inventor of efficient 'civil service' hand, Vere Foster. There are the revivers of the elegant italic style in the twentieth century, and the great proponent of child-centred art and writing, Marion Richardson, who transformed the study of handwriting in the 1930s. This book also talks about what handwriting has meant to us. And I'm going to talk about the sometimes-eccentric conclusions about personality, illness, psychosis and even suitability for employment which students of the pseudo-science of graphology have tried to draw from a close study of handwriting. We'll hear about writing implements, including both the nineteenth-century fountain pen, and that wonderful thing, the Bic Cristal ballpoint, and some varieties of ink. I wanted to convey a sense of how much handwriting can mean to any of us, and from time to time I set up a tape recorder in front of friends and family and asked them to talk about handwriting. Sometimes it gave a surprising insight into an individual life. And actually, writing this book has given me a surprising insight into my own life. I felt, after writing it, that some of my personal values had been clarified.

The book had better be written while it still makes some sense. At some point in recent years, handwriting has stopped being a necessary and inevitable intermediary between people – something by which individuals communicate with each other, putting a little bit of their personality into the form of their message as they press the ink-bearing point onto the paper. It has started to become an option, and often an unattractive, elaborate one. Before handwriting goes altogether, we might look at what it has meant to us, and what we have put into it.

For each of us, the act of putting marks on paper with ink goes back as far as we can probably remember. At some point, somebody comes along and tells us that if you make a rounded shape and then join it to a straight vertical line, that means the letter 'a', just like the ones you see in the book. (But the ones in the book have a little umbrella over the top, don't they? Never mind that, for the moment: this is how we make them for ourselves.) If you make a different rounded shape, in the opposite direction, and a taller vertical line, then that means the letter 'b'. Do you see? And then a rounded shape, in the same direction as the first letter, but not joined to anything – that makes a c. And off you go.

Actually, I don't think I have any memory of this initial introduction to the art of writing letters on paper with a pen. It was just there, hovering before the limits of conscious memory, like the day on which the letters in the book swam out of incoherence and into sensible words. That day must have existed, and must have been momentous. I just don't remember it, and as far as I can tell from my memory, I've always been able to read and to write. When, as an adult, I went to Japan or to an Arabic-speaking country, and found myself functionally illiterate in the face of signs, it woke no deep memory in me of earliest childhood. It was just extremely strange.

But if I don't have any memory of that first instruction in writing, I have a clear memory of what followed: instructions in refinements, suggestions of how to purify the forms of your handwriting. There was the element of aspiration, too. You longed to do 'joined-up writing', as we used to call the cursive hand when we were young. Instructed in print letters, I looked forward to the ability to join one letter to another as a mark of huge sophistication. Adult handwriting was unreadable, true, but perhaps that was its point. I saw the loops and impatient dashes of the adult hand as a secret and untrustworthy way of communicating that one day I would master. Unable to bear it any longer, I took a pen and covered a whole page of my school exercise book with grown-up writing, joined-up writing. There were no letters there to be read, still less words; just diagonal strokes linked each to the next in a bold series of gestures. That, I thought, was grown-up writing, if only it could be made to mean something, too.

There was, also, wanting to make your handwriting more like other people's. Often, this started with a single letter or figure. In the second year at school, our form teacher had a way of writing a 7 in the European way, with a cross-bar. A world of glamour and sophistication hung on that cross-bar; it might as well have had a beret on, be smoking Gitanes in the maths cupboard. Later, there was rather a dubious fellow with queasy 'favourites' in the class: his face would shine as he drawled out the name of the class tart. He must have been removed from the teaching profession by the forces of law and order sometime in the 1980s; still, the uncial E's which have a knack of creeping in and out of my adult handwriting were spurred by what then seemed supreme elegance.

Your hand is formed by aspiration to others – by the beautiful strokes of an italic hand of a friend which seems altogether wasted on a mere postcard, or a note on your door reading 'Dropped by – will come back later'. It's formed, too, by anti-aspiration, the desire not to be like fat Denise in the desk behind who reads with her mouth open and whose similarly obese writing, all bulging m's and looping p's, contains the atrocity of a little circle on top of every i. Or still more horrible, on occasion, (usually when she signs her name) a heart.

These are the things we remember: the attempts to modify ourselves through our handwriting, and not what came first. Our handwriting, like ourselves, seems always to have been there.

The rituals and pleasurable pieces of small behaviour attached to writing with a pen are the next thing we remember. On a finger of my right hand, just on the joint, there is a callus which has been there for forty years, where my pen rests. For some reason, I used to call it 'my carbuncle' when I thought of it – I discovered that a carbuncle is something different and more unpleasant, and I don't know who taught me the lovely but incorrect word. It has been there so long that I had it before I knew the difference between right and left, and used it to remind myself. 'Turn right' someone would say, and I would feel the hard little lump, like a leather pad, ink-stained, which showed what side that was on. And between words or sentences, to encourage thought, I might give it a small, comforting rub with my thumb.

In the same way, you could call up exactly the right word by pen chewing, an entertainment which every different pen contributed to in its own way. The clear-cased plastic ballpoint, the Bic Cristal, had a plug you could work free with your teeth and discard, or spit competitive distances. The casing was the perfect shape to turn into an Amazonian blowpipe for spitting wet paper at your enemies. Or you would find that the plastic bit would quickly shatter with a light pressure of the pensive molars; first holding together, then splintering, leaving shards in the mouth and the ink-tube poking out in a foolish way. Pretty soon you would be attempting to write with only an inch of casing, stabbing painfully into the mound of your thumb. The green rollerballs and felt-tips, on the other hand, had a more resistant casing, and gratefully took the disgusting imprint of your teeth. They had a knack of leaking backwards, onto your tongue, to spectacular effect at break-time in the playground. I could write a whole book about ink-staining; the way, at the end of the morning, you went to the bathroom and, with that gritty coal-tar soap with the school-smell – you never saw it anywhere else – scrubbed the residue of the morning's labours from the entire outer ridge on the little finger of your right hand. Bliss.

There were other rituals. If you were allowed a fountain pen, the private joy of slotting in the ink reservoir: the small resistance, and then as the plastic broke, the reservoir settling into its secure place with a silent plop. The ink never flowed immediately, and there was the gesture of flicking downwards in the air above the desk or floor to pull it towards the nib. Somehow, it never occurred to you to cover the nib with a tissue or handkerchief; somehow, there was always a reason to go on flicking downwards even after the first sign of the appearance of ink, just to flick that satisfying spattering Jackson Pollock line of ink. And when the ink ran out or wouldn't flow, whether from ballpoint or nib, the series of solutions you attempted: the movement of the pen over the paper in loops and hooks, first patiently then with a frenzied scribble, like a mid-period Twombly. When it failed again, you might daringly take the pen in your mouth and suck – it worked better with a fountain pen than with a ballpoint, but both were just as liable to stain your tongue black, and bring forward the sage observation from the boy sitting next to you that 'My aunty died of ink poisoning, it's deadly if you take enough of it inside you.'

Technologies are either warm or cold, either attached to us with their own personalities, or simple, dead, replaceable tools to be picked up and discarded. The pen has been with us for so many millennia that it seems not just warm but almost alive, like another finger. These rituals are signs of the intimacy of that relationship. They seem like ges-tures of grooming or of small-scale playing rather than the mending or maintenance of a tool. Sometimes, the pen has actually been referred to as a 'finger', and everyone knows what is meant: 'The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on,' Omar Khayyam writes in Edward Fitzgerald's translation. It has sometimes been considered improper, indecent, unhygienic to lend a pen. There is a nineteenth-century bon mot, which you will sometimes hear even now, that there are three things that a gentleman never lends, a wife, a pipe and a pen, rather like a lady never lending her hairbrush. Among other occupations, I teach creative writing at a university in the West of England, and my students know, to their cost, that the prejudice has its point. If I borrow a ballpoint from one of them, within half an hour it is apt to creep towards my mouth, and by the end of a two-hour seminar it is often not in a returnable condition.

When the machines first came into our lives, they probably seemed as warm and humane as any other way of writing. I can only explain this by reference to my own history of engagement with writing with machines. When I was a boy, people occasionally asked me 'What do you want to do, when you grow up?' I always took this question seriously. Like other remarks adults made to children – what year are you in at school? I've been hearing a lot about your new digital watch – this seemed to me a real remark which looked for a real answer.

My family had a great friend called Tony Peagam, who was the editor at various times of different magazines. One was the AA magazine – the Automobile Association, not the twelve- step recovering pisshead one – and once he put my dad on the cover. It was in relation to a story about car insurance. It seemed extraordinary to me that our family name might appear in print on a bright-red cover. Afterwards, for years, when people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say 'I want to be a freelance journalist'. (Where I got 'freelance' from, I don't know. But it was so.)

After hearing this for a few years, my mother said that, if I wanted to become a journalist, I should learn shorthand and learn to type. For my thirteenth birthday, I had a typewriter: an orange portable Olivetti, with its own tightly fitting case, closing with a satisfying click. I sat and conscientiously learnt to type. At first, the knowledge of the alphabet and the arrangement of the keyboard meshed in an ugly way. My fingers hovered over it as I searched for a letter – Q, so oddly positioned at the start of everything. But I persevered, and soon I knew where everything was, mastering those interestingly dull exercises – glad had fad sad had shall gad hall. There were, I know now, people advocating at the time that children should be taught to type in school, but it certainly never got as far as Tapton School in Sheffield. We had two blind children in our class whose Braille-printing machines made an unholy racket, so what twenty-five typewriters of the early 1980s would have done to the nerves of the poor teacher can perhaps explain why typewriting lessons in schools never took off. For me, certainly, learning to type was a home-time endeavour. I never quite learnt to touch-type, but I could soon type, after a fashion, with alacrity. Even now, the odd person will remark on what a fast typist I am. Perhaps less so, nowadays.

In the 1970s, the ability to type was a special skill, to be acquired for a particular purpose. But now everyone can type.

Think of the last thing you wrote. The odds are that you sent an SMS text on your mobile phone with your thumbs working like fury. Or perhaps you sent an e-mail, or just typed something on your laptop. Now, there are computers activated by voice recognition, and subsequently a television you can shout at to change channels, thus saving you the massive labour of pressing a button on a remote control. Soon, we may not need the keyboard, or, perhaps, our hands at all. But for the moment, it is the way we write. It is much less likely that, instead of SMS-ing, or e-mailing, or typing, you took a pen and wrote something on paper, with ink. The quick movement of thumbs over a miniature keypad, or of fingertips over a QWERTY keyboard, is the way that writing almost always begins now. This is quite a recent change. Until the year 1978, I never wrote anything other than with a pen and paper. For another ten years, I never wrote anything that counted in any other way. I can identify the exact moment of transition, when I submitted the first chapter of my PhD to my supervisor in Cambridge, in 1987. I had handwritten it, not affectedly, but just because that was how I had always written essays. He marked it, sighed, handed it back and said 'In future, could you just type your work?' I did so, with no real sense of how things were to be from then on.

The rituals and sensory engagement with the pen bind us to it. The other ways in which we write nowadays, however, don't bind us in the same way. Like everyone else, I write a lot on a computer, and have done for over twenty years. In all that time, I've evolved exactly two pieces of ancillary, grooming-type behaviour towards the thing. Every so often, I take one of those cloths that you clean your glasses with, and wipe the screen clean of dust. (Sometimes I spray the screen first with glass-cleaning fluid). And there's the quite enjoyable ritual of taking a sharp object and poking in the gaps between the keys, chasing the little balls of dust and crud and dropped crumbs of sandwiches eaten with one hand while typing with the other, out from where they have unhygienically lurked for weeks.


Excerpted from The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher. Copyright © 2012 Philip Hensher. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Philip Hensher is a columnist for The Independent, arts critic for the Spectator, and a Granta Best of Young British novelist. He has written seven novels, including The Mulberry Empire, King of the Badgers, and the Booker-shortlisted TheNorthern Clemency, and one collection of short stories. He lives in South London and Geneva.

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