My handwriting is execrable. I routinely desecrate the elegant, engraved stationery that my husband gave me as a birthday present with cramped, misshapen, and only partly legible scrawls. This despite the years I spent in parochial school being drilled by the nuns in the Palmer method, the loopy but highly readable cursive hand developed by Austin Norman Palmer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Palmer method dominated penmanship education in American public schools until the forces of progressivist pedagogy took over. It lingered on at Roman Catholic schools until the Second Vatican Council, when most of the sisters who had been its teaching mainstay jumped over the wall. The Palmer method became associated with repression and regimentation. And indeed, the nun who taught my third grade class made us practice our letters with wooden pens whose steel nibs we dipped into inkwells set in holes cut into the oak desks on cast-iron runners that our school still featured—even though seating pupils in rigid rows was already deemed backward by advanced educational theorists.
I’m not surprised to learn the Palmer method survives today mostly among home-schoolers and at Christian academies. What did surprise me was my learning about a year ago that cursive writing of any kind—that is, writing that joins up the letters in a word—is no longer taught at an increasing number of schools. Over the past few years, school districts in Hawaii, Indiana, Florida, Kansas, and North Carolina have decided not to teach young people any sort of handwriting beyond the “ball and stick” printing that will make you look like a first-grader when you sign your tax return.
Cursive is also conspicuously absent from the Common Core Standards for K-12 education currently being pushed by the Obama administration and adopted by about 45 of the 50 states. The idea is that handwriting, especially cursive handwriting, is obsolete in the computer age, and that electronically hip youngsters are better off using their school time to master “keyboarding”—although touch-typing a QWERTY arrangement of keys may itself be a fast-obsolescing skill in the age of the iPhone, which requires a single digit to maneuver.
Such a state of affairs, explored in this rambling, loosely historical book by the British novelist Philip Hensher, may be unfortunate, but it is perhaps the logical result of the development of handwriting itself, whose very purpose has always been to speed up the transmission of words. For millennia, the speediest technology for word transmission was the hand of a scribe wielding a writing instrument—a reed pen, stylus, or quill—on a durable and portable medium. The simpler the writing system, and the more portable the medium, the better.
Ancient Egyptian scribes substituted a pared-down “demotic” script suited to ordinary transactions for the elaborate hieroglyphics with which they decorated their temples. The Mesopotamian clay tablets that had to be stamped with cuneiform characters, and then oven-baked, were rendered obsolete by papyrus rolls that could be written upon quickly with ink. Fragile papyrus succumbed to nearly indestructible parchment, and rolls became compact, bound codices that were the first books. Paper—thinner and cheaper to produce from rags and wood pulp than parchment (which required the tedious treatment of animal skins)—traveled from Han-dynasty China through the Islamic world to medieval Western Europe.
Writing systems themselves traveled a similar trajectory, based on speed and ease of production. The rise, toward the end of the second millennium b.c., of the Phoenician alphabet, with its 22 phonetically based symbols, was a godsend for the scribes of the ancient Mediterranean world—from Armenia to Rome. The scribes worked their own simplifying variations on the symbols. The Romans might chisel formal serifed letters into marble (the basis for the capital letters of modern typefaces), but the scribes who wrote on papyrus rolls and wooden tablets pared down those fancy capitals into a more streamlined minuscule that became the basis for today’s lower case.
There was constant demand, especially as Western Europe started to become prosperous and literate during the 12th century, for speedier production of books and documents of every kind. Hence the development of Gothic script (familiar today via the banner fonts of newspapers and metal-band paraphernalia), whose narrow, angular letters composed mostly of vertical strokes enabled scribes to cram the maximum number of words onto a page with the minimum amount of effort.