In Pursuit of Penmanship: Philip Hensher’s ‘The Missing Ink’

How’s your handwriting these days? Has it been awhile since you’ve sent a piece of mail with a handwritten address? Perhaps you even skipped the return part because your hand started to cramp. What was the last thing you bothered to write out with pen and paper — a grocery list perhaps? No, we have apps for that these days. A check? (Do you even write checks, anymore?) Would your significant other even recognize your signature?

In The Missing Ink, Philip Hensher sets out to demonstrate how handwriting developed and what its major influences have been, and how we’ve so quickly grown out of the habit of writing anything much in the old fashioned way, if we ever even learned to write properly in the first place. Most schoolchildren in the United States are no longer taught cursive: in 42 states, handwriting classes have gone out the window, generally in favor of keyboard training. Hensher looks at methods in French, German, and British classrooms, as well. Apparently the French take handwriting very seriously, while the Germans have favoured various styles over time so the look of an average person’s handwriting has changed dramatically from generation to generation.

Hensher frames this book with periodic mentions of his own journey through learning to write. As a child he found cursive utterly mysterious, and invented a scrawl that imitated the look of “joined up” writing without actually containing identifiable letters or words. He couldn’t wait to write like an adult. When was the peak of your own handwriting? Elementary school, perhaps? When you write for long periods (or perhaps just a few consecutive minutes) do you start to miss letters, make mistakes, blend shapes together? Our handwriting evolves as we age and learn about the different types (print, joined up cursive, italics), and then degeneration probably sets in. Your handwriting isn’t likely to continue to improve over the course of your life.

Hensher firmly recognizes that it simply does not work that way. He got interested in writing a book on this topic when he realized he wasn’t familiar with the handwriting of a good friend. Like remembering birthdays used to be something some committed a space to in their brains, knowing someone’s handwriting used to help us with character judgment. Careful printing might indicate someone is conscientious and reliable, while smooth but swift cursive might identify someone who’d make a good note taker at a meeting. And a hasty scrawl could indicate untrustworthiness. Are we all untrustworthym now?

I challenge you to read this book without getting out a piece of scrap paper and testing your memory of your grade school cursive! Hensher describes some of the schools of thought around handwriting. Is it better to use just your wrist to guide your hand, or your whole arm to conduct the exercises? Some thought that involving the entire arm would result in smoother writing and less fatigue in the hand. Then again, is it better to have your feet flat on the floor and posture erect, or better to relax into your writing and slouch over it, perhaps look at it completely from the side? Hensher delves into the writing of a few historical figures who have had their style and attitudes about penmanship dissected by historians and scholars: Hitler and Dickens, for example.

Moving from an historical review of different handwriting styles and where they developed, we also learn about László Bíró, inventor of the ballpoint pen, and Marcel Bich, the man who bought the patent in Europe to mass produce them. It’s amazing to think how much progress was made once blotting paper became a thing of the past and ink dried quickly due to the mechanism of the small rotating ball at the tip of these pens.

It took Bíró about a decade to develop the ballpoint pen through trial and error. He came to the final design as World War II was starting. Bich launched the Bic Crystal pen in 1950. It’s hard to imagine a world without such an inexpensive, practical writing implement. And remarkably, the Bic pen has hardly changed in over 60 years. Today it is sold in the same form as when it launched. The ink formula has improved over time, but the design and mechanism remain exactly as Bíró invented them. And don’t get Hensher started on fountain pens and different nib styles.

Hensher’s journalistic style can be a bit abrasive, with anyone who is doing things differently than he considers correct and proper coming under fire. Describing an exercise class where students are taught some of the elements of calligraphy and encouraged to improve their handwriting through sweeping aerobic movements, Hensher dryly notes that it makes him “want to buy a leotard”. Much like a laugh track tells the audience when to chuckle and when to guffaw, Hensher inserts adjectives and adverbs that not-so-subtly indicate the readers’ expected reaction. A bad pun in the title of a report is “wincing”. A collection of very similar public schoolboys’ handwriting samples is “quite exhausting” for Hensher to flip through. Yes, research is difficult. As a reader I definitely had the impression that Hensher wanted me to know he worked very hard to gather all this apparently tiresome information.

It’s also a little off putting that Hensher nudges the reader from time to time as a comrade, as though we’re all in the know together, being “we English” or “we British”. Perhaps the author didn’t expect his book to be published in other parts of the world or read by anyone outside of Britain, and only an insider of his world would be ‘in on it’ with him.

Nudging and winking aside, Hensher has thoroughly researched his subject, and offers a solid background of the development of several major styles of Western handwriting. From various adaptations of copperplate, to the italic style of Italian monks brought to northern European boys’ boarding schools, to a clean sans serif style preferred for bookkeeping, Hensher offers a personal view alongside the historical evolution of modern day handwriting as we know it. Unfortunately for those keen to preserve the art of penmanship, when Hensher spends a day in London shopping for a very particular fountain pen for himself, he sees many people with heads bowed, pecking away at glowing screens, but he’s nearly the only person demonstrating any intention of writing.

RATING 6 / 10