Book Review: The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting

The title of the book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek did not instill a lot of confidence that I was going to see eye to eye with the opinions of the author. The urge to make marks to communicate seems hardwired into the human DNA, in my humble opinion. How we go about doing that has changed over time but the essence of mark-making continues. And even children who seem fascinated by technology still gravitate towards crayons and paint just as often so I’m inclined to think that Ms. Trubek’s “uncertain” stance is a little premature.

That said, I plowed through her text, and let me tell you, it was a bit of an ordeal. I am fairly familiar  in the history of calligraphy and the handwriting so I was sort of hoping that this book was going to take a slightly different perspective. Nope. Ms. Trubek dove right into the history and attempted to sum it up in a few short chapters (less than 60 pages) with her own biases about the church and the patriarch. It makes me wonder whether she was just lashing out at the world or actually researching handwriting. Yes, history is full of injustices but deciding whether children today or in the future should continue to learn handwriting because of social injustices of 300 years ago hardly seems like sound logic.

Adding a layer of irrevelance to her argument, she included chapters about handwriting analysis and the introduction of the typewriter as reasons why handwriting should be summarily dismissed. Actually, those were all reasons why I thought her editor should be dismissed. It made the book feel choppy and disjointed. The introduction of the typewriter and keyboard created less need for handwriting but the chapter did not fall appropriately within the book.

Many of the statements Ms. Trubek made felt she was aggrieved and put-upon. It was not until the last chapter or so that she admits she left-handed (pg. 151) and reveals being judged “less intelligent” because her penmanship was not as legible. As a fellow lefty, I understand there are issues facing us but she needs to remove her personal bias from her writing.

Handwriting, like riding a bicycle, is a skill that requires patience and practice. Anyone can do it — unless they have a physical condition that inhibits their ability and then, yes, there are many alternatives. We live in a world now that does not make it a requirement to write by hand anymore. But, if you read this blog, I suspect that you are someone who believes that handwriting and pens and analog tools are worth using and saving.

Skip this book. I sent my copy, annotated with paper sticky notes to my pal Penthusiast. No one else should have to pay cash for this.

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10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I really wasn’t offended by this book. The majority of it, as you note, is just a highly condensed history book. And when it finally gets to her arguments against teaching handwriting… well, I didn’t really agree with them, but I felt that they weren’t as broad, forceful, or dismissive of handwriting as they’ve been characterized, IMHO.

  2. Sad if it is true. My experience interracting with students in their late teens and early twenties does tell me that less and less in current younger generation are comfortable with the act of writing. Not that they cannot write, but it is just that they are not comfortable doing it. Most have no experience writing with fountain pens. Generally their writings lack ‘control’ one can get from using fountain pens. The general requirement of submitting their work in their study in either digital format and/or printed is not helping. Its a pity really because I do believe writing is an extension of the mind, it aids thinking and retaining those thoughts which is a great asset in learning. On my part I am happy enough to have introduced to joy of writing to a few friends. The stumbling block now is just that writing implements are not as cheap as they used to be due to smaller market demand. Even decent woodcased pencils are hard to find these days. Those are good to start off young kids to the pleasure of writing and making their mark on the world…

  3. I love how you ended your review. Is this author one we’ve heard from before, say in an interview?

    I wish I could relate to how school is now, but I can’t. Computers were just coming to schools when I was in high school.

    But my practice for writing any papers was to write it out in longhand, then use the typewriter or word processor.

    There are enough studies to show you retain more by writing information than when typing it. How does anyone learn to spell with autocorrect fixing the misspellings?

    Yes, to reply to your blog we use keypads or phones. But I don’t see how they would always work.

    I have to go with my parents when they see a doctor. I take notes. Could you see me doing this with the iPhone? Maybe, but pen and paper are much better because the notes are for my parents not me. Trust me, this will likely come to anyone who lives near enough to their parents. You will have to go in with them. How would you take the notes for them, knowing they are not yours, but their notes?

  4. Kind of a snotty review, and a troubling one in some ways. The fact that children like crayons, and that there exists a certain number of people who enjoy a fringe hobby like fountain pen collecting or Spencerian penmanship, hardly means that handwriting does not face an uncertain future. It clearly does. There are those that prefer vinyl records, and there is a modest market for them, but physical audio media does — obviously — face an equally uncertain future. Some introspection about how marginal, and how increasingly marginal, this hobbyhorse is in societal terms would be appropriate, rather than engaging in head-in-the-sand abnegation.

    But perhaps Ms. Trubek was right in citing Erasmus: “I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject.”

    1. Yet Ms. Trubek found the subject “so unexciting” she was impelled to write an entire book. Presumably her duties chairing the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at Oberlin College weigh so heavily as to leave mere minutes to revise and review her arguments. I found her “A Skeptic’s Guide to Writer’s Houses” more than lightweight. Heigh-ho, if tenure were all.

  5. This war against handwriting has nothing to do with technology or what the children are “comfortable” with. It’s all about politics – about dividing us by race, income, religion, gender and in this case, age. A people divided are easily defeated. We need to wrest control of the taxpayer-funded education system from the clutches of the U.S. Government and the Labor Unions, and return it to the Parents!

  6. Loved your review! Please, tell us how you really feel! I won’t bother with this book. Anyone who inserts churchy opinions into an analysis of handwriting as a form of communication is pretty lame, in my opinion. Thanks for saving me the time and money on this one.

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