Saturday, August 24, 2013

Umberto Eco's Lost Article on the Lost Art of Handwriting

There was an article in The Guardian by Umberto Eco, On the Lost Art of Handwriting. It's no longer available, but one of the things Eco says is that the crisis with handwriting "began with the advent of the ballpoint pen. Early ballpoints were also very messy and if, immediately after writing, you ran your finger over the last few words, a smudge inevitably appeared. And people no longer felt much interest in writing well, since handwriting, when produced with a ballpoint, even a clean one, no longer had soul, style or personality."

I don't particularly like ballpoint pens, but this is pretty idiotic. The same can be said for fountain pens. And what does smudging have to with the absence "of soul or personality." There are those who would say that the should is nothing but a smudge. While I would not agree to such a claim either—"soul" is at the very least a coherent concept—I have no idea why writing with a ballpoint pen lacks soul or personality. For all I know, some good novels may have been written with ballpoint pens. And what about roller balls? How much soul do they impart to writing?

There were apparently other interesting claims in the article, like the one that handwriting as opposed to writing with the keyboard slows you down and thus facilitates thinking. Too bad I no longer have access to this morsel of wisdom by my favorite Italian author.[1]



1. This appears to be it: "The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages hand-eye coordination.... [it]obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think. Many writers, though accustomed to writing on the computer, would sometimes prefer even to impress letters on a clay tablet, just so they could think with greater calm." Yes, clay tablets are the way to go ... obviously. "Writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down"? Not my experience, and what about free writing?

5 comments:

gregor said...

There does seem to be quite a lot these days on how choice of technology affects the thinking/writing process.

http://www.macworld.com/article/2018600/why-im-writing-on-the-ipad.html is a recent contribution; but in his case, it's the iPad which makes his writing better by slowing him down.

What I find interesting is the technological determinism of these pieces; I don't allow myself to be distracted, by computer distracts me. There's perhaps a suggestion that by working too quickly, too without friction, the tool doesn't give me the interludes I need to to reflect on my work, and without these forced interludes, I'm carried along by the river of my own thinking. But do these writers not reread and refine their work?

MK said...

"Technological determinism" is a good word for for the phenomenon.

John Cooper said...

Here's the article: bit.ly/12EBLtA

It's not always cogent, but it's not as stupid a piece as you make it sound. I don't know exactly what his point about the smudging is, but he does make it clear that fountain pens were often much worse when it comes to that. That's why he said ballpoints were "also" very messy.

I like what he says at the end, about older, more manual and labor-intensive ways of writing joining "obsolete" activities such as sailing and fencing as worthwhile pursuits for hobbyists and purists.

Take a look at some 18th and 19th century manuscripts and see how much more expressive the writing could be when the width of the line could be controlled by the pressure of the stylus, and when you really did have to be slow, because you needed to dip the pen every few words or so. That's the element of soulfulness Eco, like many, finds missing in the post-ballpoint age.

MK said...

Sorry again ... But the full text did not change my mind.

The "also" does not change a thing. Yes, it connects it with the mess students made of ink wells (including myself, as I am just a generation behind him).

I also like the point about horseback riding and sailing. But we wouldn't say that it returns us to a better state, or a state "before the crisis began."

As for "soulfulness" is dislike many aspects of Romanticism, including this one.

MK said...

Sorry again ... But the full text did not change my mind.

The "also" does not change a thing. Yes, it connects it with the mess students made of ink wells (including myself, as I am just a generation behind him).

I also like the point about horseback riding and sailing. But we wouldn't say that it returns us to a better state, or a state "before the crisis began."

As for "soulfulness," I actually dislike many aspects of Romanticism, including this one.

August 26, 2013 at 4:39 PM
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