Kitty Florey may have subtitled her book The Rise and Fall of Handwriting but her intent is not to relegate handwriting to the stagnant role of relic from the past. Surely, handwriting is an art, and for many, an art that is lost. But in a recent phone interview, Florey delightedly informed me that she had sent four handwritten notes, “with stamps” in the past week. Florey’s goal was not simply to write what the book jacket brightly dubs a “charming, fascinating explanation of the many facets of handwriting.” Script and Scribble is both charming and fascinating, but it’s also a call to action, or rather, a call to write.
“This isn’t meant be a nostalgia trip,” she confirmed. And to that end, the book baldly exposes how many people have completely unreadable handwriting. In the age of computers, most of us can get away with it. But there are still situations when we need to write “legibly and fast”. Florey draws attention to those instances in her book. For example, most doctors have terrible handwriting, yet they are frequently called upon to write, whether it is for prescriptions or on patients’ medical records. The fact that their handwriting is unreadable seems dangerous and unfair.
Florey’s book is certainly more informative than nostalgic, and her thoroughly researched and meticulously recounted history of handwriting is remarkably captivating. She creates an air of intrigue around the handwriting practices throughout history, and her energetic but non-aggressive tone makes us less likely to exhale a sigh for days gone by and more inclined to give a whistle of marvel and appreciation.
She begins the chapter on handwriting history with a tale of Egyptian hieroglyphs and moves us through the Romans, the invention of the quill and finally, the marvelous entrance of ballpoint pens and pencils. Then comes an engrossing and systematic analysis of the way handwriting was taught to children over the years. It comes as a surprise to learn that there were entire schools devoted to teaching handwriting; this section of American history seems more foreign than the introduction of italics in 16th Venice. Readers may be quite surprised to learn that America had a “golden age of penmanship”, but to the characters portrayed in Script and Scribble, nothing could be more important that the diligent production of letters.
We may be past the “golden age” of handwriting schools, but Florey said that in writing the book, she discovered that people do still care about handwriting, although even “they didn’t know they felt strongly about it.” Florey’s unassuming but contagiously inquisitive writing is perhaps largely responsible. Unlike the nuns who taught her the once ubiquitous but now outdated Palmer method, Florey is not the slightest bit didactic as she conveys her copious research. She describes various handwriting icons throughout America’s history, but she is careful to note that there are quicker ways to learn handwriting.
Surely mostly of us can’t imagine practicing our handwriting for hours a day, and although Florey would like see to more adults improve their handwriting, she does not think the outdated methods are practical or necessary. Having embarked on this project determined to improve her own handwriting, she found a way to do it, and now is prepared to be a handwriting evangelist of sorts. (Her current preferred font is a form of Italics.)
Before settling on that method, Florey contacted numerous modern day handwriting experts for her research and she describes her experiences with various experiences with them throughout the book. She relays her findings with a mix of childish exuberance and rigorous investigative journalism and her individual approach serves to affirm that handwriting is indeed a unique practice. A section on the art of personality reading via handwriting adds levity and spunk, though it is less essential to what is the book’s (actually rather serious) thesis: Everyone needs to learn how to write clearly.
Not only doctors, but all of us, will be called upon to use, and read, our own handwriting. Sympathy cards should not come in the form of email. She also believes that as we try to conserve energy, having computers on 24 hours a day may become a thing of the past.
Furthermore, handwriting plays an important role in terms of our thought process. She conveys, both in her book and in our conversation, that classroom note taking on lap tops is not as effective because on a computer, students do not have to think about what they are writing. Typing an entire lecture verbatim is not the same cognitive and intellectual experience as deciding which words matter, and interpreting a professor’s thoughts into one’s own mind.
Kitty Burns Florey
Typing and computers, are necessary—Florey does not deny that. She does her professional writing on her computer, but revealed, “If I come to a difficult place I have to sit down with a pen and a piece of paper to work it out.” Writing by hand forces the writer to be more thoughtful. She explains that there is “such a difference with forming a letter yourself. Creating it, messy or neat.” Computers let us be “glib”. She keeps a journal and says that it is an entirely different experience from writing on the computer, because it involves more care. She tried to keep a diary on a computer, but “it wasn’t as interesting to me.”
There is no doubt that the point of writing is to be interesting. In Script and Scribble we are invited to stoke our own passion and investment in writing, and furthermore, we are given hope that there is a better way to share it with others.