Book Review: The Missing Ink
June 22, 2022
This is a book about cursive handwriting. It was a gift from dear friends, which encouraged me to finish it, even though the middle going was rough, as I’ll discuss below.
Philip Hensher, the author, is clearly a geek for handwriting. While the middle third of this book is deep nerdery over how handwriting evolved and is taught, the first and last sections are passionate and compelling appreciations for what is quickly becoming a lost art.
Among the obsessive details are analyses of notable handwriting (Royalty, Dickens, and Hitler, are among them), a thorough takedown of graphology, and a discussion of writing instruments and ink technology. (The ball in a ballpoint pen is made from Tungsten!)
A few of the tidbits that stood out for me:
- The dot over a lowercase “i” is called a jot.
- For centuries, the shaping of thought by scratching marks on paper has been fundamental to our existence as human beings.
- As of 2012 (the date of publication) only eight US States still mandated the teaching of handwriting in schools.
- Many of the typefaces in the Fonts menu of your computer are named for different styles of handwriting — such as Copperplate, Blackletter, Italic, and Chancery.
- Related to the above, there are several styles of handwriting that have been fads or government mandates over the years. If you know how to write cursive, you learned a specific style. When other styles are encountered, you’re likely to consider them illegible, but they are just different than what you thought was “correct.”
- Printing (non-connected) letters, which was taught as the precursor to cursive when I was a kid, was a controversial innovation.
- Graphology came into favor when Sherlock Holmes referenced it in 1887. Until as recently as 1997, Merrill Lynch used handwriting analysis to screen the personality job applicants.
- In France, neat and uniform handwriting is (was?) considered a civic duty, to ensure communication with fellow countrymen.
- Biro and Bich (Bic) are the fathers of the ballpoint pen, but it was the R.A.F. that catapulted the instrument into success by buying 30,000 units for their pilots to use (instead of fountain pens!) in the cockpit!
Regarding graphology, which the author likens to astrology and palm reading, I particularly enjoyed this pseudo personality analysis that he offers. It’s for someone who freely mixes upper and lowercase letters in their printing, as I do:
Someone who has unexpected upper-case forms for lower-case letters, often R and W, would jump out of an aeroplane, fuck a pig, steal and drink the homebrewed absinthe of a Serbian warlord, just to see what the experience was like. Go for a drink with them. Just not in Serbia.
Well, two out of three’s not bad.
This book also brought back a number of forgotten childhood memories: My mother writing notes and shopping lists using shorthand. The feeling of being a sophisticated adult once I could read my grandmother’s cursive. A parent-teacher conference where my father defended my non-standard way of holding a pencil under criticism from Mrs. Bishop.
I was also reminded of this curious and interesting book by Professor Oddfellow, Cursive Numbers, which I now appreciate with a new perspective.
Of related a note, a friend of mine who works for the Internal Revenue Service tells me there are designated (older) employees who are called upon to read tax returns written in cursive. This is because many (younger) employees don’t know how to read the style of writing.
Intrigued? You can get a copy of The Missing Ink at the Amazon.