The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher

As I learned when I took part in CBC Radio’s segment on cursive writing, discussions about the value of teaching cursive handwriting are all over the place these days.

missing ink 1If you are interested in reading more about the great handwriting debate, you could not do much better than Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why It Still Matters.  It is a lively, humorous and informative look at the history of handwriting instruction.  Although it is written by an Englishman with a focus on handwriting instruction in his home country, there is a lot of information about the developments and reforms to the education system on this side of the pond as well.

I can’t resist including both covers of Hensher’s book.  Mine is the one above, published by Faber and Faber, but I really did covet this one, published in England by Pan Macmillan:

missing ink 2

 

Hensher begins with a fond recollection of learning to write cursive: “There was an element of aspiration, too.  You longed to do ‘joined-up writing’, as we used to call the cursive hand when we were young.  Instructed in print letters, I looked forward to the ability to join one letter to another as a mark of huge sophistication. … There was also wanting to make your handwriting more like other people’s.  Often, this started with a single letter or figure.  In the second year at school, our form teacher had a way of writing a 7 in the European way, with a cross-bar.  A world of glamour and sophistication hung on that cross-bar; it might as well have had a beret on, be smoking Gitanes in the maths cupboard.”

Reader, I too longed to copy the hand of my neater and more sophisticated friends and teachers!  I went so far as to enlist friends in the task of labeling my notebooks and binders so that they would at least look beautiful from the outside.

Hensher had me at “Hello,” but he really seals the deal with his chapter on his pursuit of the perfect fountain pen.  He shops all day to find the instrument that will meet all his needs, and he finds that, in spite of his readiness to drop a fair bundle of cash on a truly good pen, the only pen maker who makes what he wants is the same pen maker that made his favourite $5 plastic fountain pen.

Reader, I have been on a life-long pursuit for the perfect pen!  I have shopped in England, Ireland, America, Canada and Japan, and despite having accumulated enough gel pens to stock the whole neighbourhood in this back to school season, I have never met a pen to beat my all-time, cheap favourite: the Uniball Vision Elite in blue-black.  Why, after repeated confirmation that this is the perfect writing instrument, do I keep looking?  Such is the fickle heart of the pen addict.

uniball

Hensher does not simply write about personal anecdotes, of course.  His main task is to trace the instruction of handwriting from the near-impossible eighteenth-century copperplate cursive to the much more legible and child-friendly methods of the mid-twentieth century.  There are also chapters on Dickens’s writing, on the instruction of writing in Germany, on the history of the Bic pen, and on writing and psychoanalysis.

There is also a three-page footnote on the use of coloured inks.  The Prince of Wales uses purple.  According to one old survey of 25,000 samples of handwriting, Lady Novelists use green.

None of the lady novelists of my acquaintance use green ink, but there you go.  O tempora! O mores!

Hensher ends the book with a ten-point manifesto for why we should all learn and take the time to use cursive.  It’s a thing of beauty.  And it’s not just a utilitarian account of how cursive makes us smarter.  It also makes us us, unique and inimitable.

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