We’re all familiar with internal conflict. We want to move, we want to stay put. We wish to explore the new, we wish to stick with the familiar. We’d like to have the candy bar, we’d like to eat the candy bar. It’s a wonder we can function at all amid such inner turmoil.
First page of a letter written in 1825 by Samual Clarke
But inside of me, for as long as I can remember, one conflict has overshadowed the rest: a battle between my love of Nature and my fascination with Technology.
As a kid, I went outside to play. I fished for crawdads in the neighborhood creek, pulled toads from storm drains, explored the woods out back of our house for long hours by myself. At night I succumbed to the allure of the miraculous firefly. But I also succumbed to the allure of the “real” world—a world of radio and television, rock-n-roll and fast cars, space flights and assassinations and crazy foreign wars. The “real” world was full of interesting people (e.g., girls). And the “real” world had a summer school typing class.
Little did I know it then—I truly dreaded going—but that typing class proved more useful than any other I took in high school.
Before long I had my own electric typewriter, was cruising along at sixty words a minute, then eighty, then a hundred. After college I moved to Maine—a place of woods and shores and birds and seasons—where I ended up a radio journalist, then a newspaper man, then a magazine editor wrangling a silent computer keyboard. Somewhere along the way, I lost my knack for writing by hand.
I recall spending long hours as a youth perfecting my penmanship. Eschewing the boring cursive I’d learned in school, I began to print my words in small, neat letters. I changed my “e” to look like a backwards “3” and gave my lowercase “a” a second story. And I wrote a lot—lists and journals and school papers and drafts of college essays. I wrote all my personal letters by hand. Occasionally I’d write so long and hard that I’d end up with a wicked case of writer’s cramp, a pain I well remember to this day.
Then the Apple Macintosh came along, and all that changed.
I just couldn’t quit that little Mac. I learned word-processing software, utility software, fancy page-layout software, even a few programming applications. And, OK, yeah, I played computer games. Of course I interspersed these computer sessions with outdoor hikes or birding excursions, or I’d go swimming or skating down at the quarry pond. (I have an inner battle raging, after all.) But invariably I’d return to the keyboard, whose magic connected me to a new kind of “real” world, a world offering fresh puzzles, instant telecommunication, and digital imaging powers I had no idea existed.
And that’s how—through what now seems an implausible series of events—I became a type designer.
In retrospect, it seems both the height of irony and perfectly appropriate that my specialty would be handwriting fonts, with a particular focus on historical penmanship. Because in the twenty years since, technology has streamlined written communication in such a way that we no longer have to hunt around for a pencil or pen. Cursive handwriting is rarely taught in schools anymore—heck, a lot of young people have plenty of trouble even reading it. New generations will become more proficient at thumbing the tiny screens of smart devices than writing a simple thank-you note by hand.
In those same twenty years, I’ve read countless letters and journals from the 1700s and 1800s. Much of the time I have handwriting on the brain. And I think a lot about what we’re losing as our ability to wield a pen fades slowly away.
First, there’s the guilt of hardly ever writing by hand myself anymore. (Hand-cramp seems to come in a matter of seconds these days.) Worse, I worry that my type designs might somehow be contributing to the loss of pen and ink. That’s silly, of course, because that loss is likely inevitable no matter what I do—but it’s also more significant than most people realize.
For one thing, recent studies suggest that learning to write in loops and curves is beneficial to our brains. But from where I sit, our greatest loss might be a certain miraculous insight the handwritten page gives us into the characters and personalities of the people who put those words there in the first place.
Detail of Col. William B. Travis’s letter from the Alamo.
As graphologists will attest, a lot more gets communicated from a handwritten page than just thoughts put into sentences. In a flash we can recognize the hand of friends and loved ones—the little quirks and peculiarities of their scribbles. But beyond even these, if you look closely enough at the pressure and slant and size and flourish, you can see inside the minds and hearts and histories of the ones who wielded the pens. You can tell if they were angry or sad, determined or resigned, courageous or desperate or ill.
I think, for instance, of Col. William B. Travis’s famous letter from the Alamo, whose closing phrase “Victory or Death” he’d so deliberately underscored three times.
Alas, it seems that—barring an apocalypse—we’ll have only the past few short centuries of this intimate phenomenon to wonder at and admire.