The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting

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 his new book, 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.