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The Antique Penman
     H O M E  
  F A Q  
Life Without the Written Word
Sunday, November 13th, 2016

We’re not just losing handwriting: written communication generally is going away.

Detail from the journal of Mirabeau B. Lamar (1835).

Detail from the journal of Mirabeau B. Lamar (1835).

I’ve mentioned here the little surge of emotion that comes when you recognize the writing of a loved one—or even, I suppose, the notes of a strict professor, or the scrawl of a stalker. In all cases, a lot more gets communicated by the slope of the letters, the look of the lines, than by the actual words and sentences themselves.

But imagine a world where those words and sentences themselves have gone missing. Imagine a virtual life in which everyone simply talks to each other, and any subtle hints to deeper meaning must come from the oldest nonverbal cues—tone of voice and facial expression. It’s where we seem to be headed in this digital age.

Detail of 1407 Bible by Gerard Brils of Belgium.

Detail of 1407 Bible by Gerard Brils of Belgium.

Thanks to smart devices, now within arm’s reach of most First World residents, the ease of capturing audio and video has increased a hundredfold. Podcasts are how we document change or predict the future, replacing magazine articles and newspaper columns. We listen to storytelling and standup comedy instead of going to the library to check out books to read. We’ve been suddenly thrust into a golden era of TV.

Never mind the loss of longhand—typing on a traditional keyboard has given way to hammering out txts and mssgs with just two thumbs. With autocorrect, who needs to learn how to spell? Heck, witness the sudden proliferation of emoji. Is it inconceivable that written literacy will, over not a very long time, diminish and fade?

Calligraphic font Zapfino (1998), by Hermann Zapf.

Calligraphic font Zapfino (1998), by Hermann Zapf.

Maybe I’m being pessimistic—after all, my very livelihood depends on the written word—but consider the spread of this: “tl;dr.

Short of an apocalyptic global catastrophe, I can think of no event that might reverse this slow extinction of reading and writing. Only if the grid goes down will we have to revert to lighting our own lamps, and making our own lampblack ink, sharpening our own quills, and pounding our own pulp into paper. I suppose that might be seen as a silver lining.

Excerpt from the diary of Leslie Willson.

Excerpt from the diary of my father, Leslie Willson.

I’m drawn again to a page of my father’s diary—this one from 07 August 1945, the day after the bombing of Hiroshima, when he was a 22-year-old serviceman—written in his familiar cursive hand:

“I cannot conceive of any harnessed force so powerful. Although no mention was made of the actual damage done by this one bomb, its potential effect is tremendous. It may well shorten the war to weeks or days—and it may well have been the death rattle of this round green earth.”

Well, here we are more than 70 years later, and no planetary cataclysm has occurred. So it might be up to our human eye for art and history to preserve our lovely alphabets—the beauty of calligraphy, the magic of an ancient inscribed scroll. Current type design trends, in fact, seem full of fanciful scripts.

Nope, I cannot abandon hope. I can’t conceive of life without the written word.

 


 

Miscellanea

» Does the loss of cursive mean social devolution?

» Or have computers effectively taken the place of the pen?

» Have you ever noticed how your handwriting has changed over time? (Mine has.)

» Another argument why teaching handwriting to kids is a good thing.

» What do François Mitterrand and Steve Jobs have in common?

» More moving evidence of the timeless power of handwriting.

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One Response to “Life Without the Written Word”
  1. Denny says:

    Impressed and agreed. What to do but mourn the passing of another artifact…………..Just like candlelight.

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