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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 ...
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.
“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
Praise for Philip Hensher
“Extremely funny, but also deeply humane.”—Robert Macfarlane, The Sunday Times (London)
“Tremendous . . . What a writer he is!” —Philip Pullman, author of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
“A literary god of small things.” —Adrian Turpin, Financial Times
“Gifted with a great virtuosity and a relentless intelligence.” —Ian Sansom, The Guardian
Philip Hensher is a writer of many talents: not only the author of such novels as The Northern Clemency but an opera librettist, an art critic, and a biting newspaper columnist. And that title — "writer" — should be taken as literally as possible. Though he does sometimes use a word processor, Hensher is a proud advocate of the handwritten word, and in The Missing Ink he mounts a sustained defense of the dying art of putting pen (or pencil, or quill) to paper.
Handwriting, says Hensher, "involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people." That's not to say that he buys into the debunked pseudoscience of graphology, popular in the nineteenth century, in which handwriting analysis supposedly revealed a person's inner being. (Qualities you could allegedly discern from a person's handwriting "include 'amativeness, conjugality, inhabitativeness, philoprogenitiveness, destructiveness, approbativeness, concentrativeness, vitativeness, firmness, veneration,' and many others, some of which seem actually to be words.") Yet there is something of us all in our handwriting, or at least there was when we still did it. Charles Dickens's hand is powerful and nearly illegible, a sign of a professional writer, while William Morris's more relaxed one testifies to his champagne socialism. Proust made handwriting into a leitmotif of In Search of Lost Time, whose characters have hands as varied as their personalities.
As for today, I'm not sure how serious Hensher is when he contends that you might be gay if you write your E like a Greek epsilon, though when he says that "anyone who writes a circle or a heart over their i's is a moron," I'm inclined to agree. But there is less and less occasion to assess colleagues or lovers via their handwriting — although I send the odd thank-you note in my pitiful chicken scratch, I haven't received a handwritten letter since 2007, and that came from a soldier stationed in Iraq with no Internet access. Hensher knows he's up against it, of course. He wrote the first chapter of his doctoral dissertation by hand, only to have it handed back to him because, explained his professor, "my first chapter makes his eyes hurt and it's not fair." These days Hensher's creative writing students ask for typed feedback because they can't read notes in the margins, and one of his pupils begged off an assignment to travel the city with a notebook because writing made her hand ache too much.
The Missing Ink is punchy and decidedly freeform, with divagations into the histories of the fountain pen and the Bic, the pedagogy of children's handwriting instruction, the legal ramifications of Adolf Hitler's typewritten versus handwritten wills, and the challenges of buying an italic nib at the Harrods stationery desk. He also frequently interrupts the thread of his book with interview transcripts. We hear about the handwriting of a librarian, a financier, a charity organizer, a political lobbyist — and even one "A.J.H., novelist," who can only be Alan Hollinghurst and who tells Hensher that "I've taken a lot of pleasure in a capital B" but "I'm a bit embarrassed about the lowercase y's, especially at the end of a word."
Not every meandering chapter makes for fascinating reading, and Hensher's penchant for gossipy asides and donnish name- dropping may be an acquired taste. Nevertheless, The Missing Ink hangs together, thanks to the author's impressive self- confidence: though he loves to write by hand he never fetishizes it, nor does he ever tip into some pointless antimodern rage. Typing is here to stay, as Hensher knows, and the worst fate would be for handwriting to become an affectation of a few fussy British aesthetes. Instead, as he sensibly proposes, in an epilogue with the mock-Leninist title "What Is to Be Done?," that we make handwriting into a slow pleasure, like cooking or walking, that we can luxuriate in amid ever more hectic days. I plan to do more handwriting myself now, and I will let you know if my scribbling makes any sense to the optical scanner app on my phone.
Jason Farago is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, n+1, Dissent, Frieze, and other publications. Trained as an art historian, he has contributed to several exhibition catalogs on art since 1960. He recently returned to his hometown of New York following a long sojourn in London.
Reviewer: Jason Farago