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Talking with Anne Trubek, author of ‘The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting’

Anne Trubek, author of

Anne Trubek, author of "The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting." Credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

In “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting” (Bloomsbury, 192 pp., $26), Anne Trubek gives a compelling and entertaining history of humanity’s relationship to the physical act of writing, and points toward where it may be headed. Trubek — an author, publisher and academic — draws connections between writing’s growth and the evolution of the idea of the “self,” with historical asides about the lives of monks, scribes and scriveners. It’s an extremely readable book on a subject you didn’t know you were interested in. Trubek discussed the book by telephone.

What first sparked your investigation into this subject?

A while ago, I was an English professor working in the field of book history. At the same time, I had a young son who was really having trouble in school simply because writing in both print and cursive was very hard for him. And because I had this sort of understanding of history and how the things that he was being asked to do at school could be seen within this much larger arc of writing technologies, I thought, What is going on here?

What were the most helpful resources for your research?

The Morgan Library [in Manhattan] has an amazing collection of cuneiform tablets, which is really the first evidence of handwriting. I totally fell in love with cuneiform, and the Sumerian language. The Morgan was generous and walked me through how to understand these marks and the civilization that made them, and how bountiful and plentiful these tablets still are, because clay may be the most durable writing surface that humanity has ever invented — if there’s a fire, they only get stronger. I spent some time with a forensic document examiner, who is a person who might be asked to testify in court as to whether someone’s signature was true or not, and I spent some time learning a 19th century American script called Spencerian.

What do you think was handwriting’s most important contribution to the development of civilization?

Certainly “writing” itself was an amazing contributor to society, and writing can be sort of conflated with handwriting for millennia — chiseling on stone is, after all, a form of handwriting. But I would say that how we write, the tools we use, how we make our letters or marks, reveals something about the culture — it is a marker of who we are. Nietzsche has a quotation: “Our writing tools are working on our thoughts.” These things change the way we think, and that’s important.

There’s a section in the book about the purported specialists who claimed to be able to assess someone’s character through their handwriting. What do you make of that field? It does seem to me that my own sloppy handwriting may reveal a certain default in my character concerning organization . . .

I would disagree. I have trouble handwriting and I’m a very organized person. I bet if we spent some time on this I could disabuse you of the notion that your sloppy handwriting is reflective of a disorganized mind. I don’t take any stock in graphology; it’s a pseudoscience up there with phrenology [the 19th century study of skull shape]. But it can be a fun parlor game.

The most important thing about graphology, especially in regards to what I’m trying to argue in the book, is that it arises at the same time as the idea of the modern individual self. Americans today definitely believe that their handwriting expresses something about them, maybe not deep personality issues, but it’s a sign of their own uniqueness and individuality. And that is really something that’s only about 100 years old.

What do you think will be lost in a future with little need for handwriting? What will be gained?

First of all, I think the changes will be incredibly slow. For instance, people were still writing cuneiform a thousand years after it had really “died out” as a writing system. People are going to be handwriting for a long, long time. What we lose is a certain kind of experiential relationship to forming letters, the kinetic movement of hand across the page. In terms of what we gain, I think it’s important to remember, that computers and typing allow us to do things with writing that would be much more difficult with pen and paper. It’s also a democratizing force — there’s a whole group of judgments that we make about the content of people’s writing that’s actually based on the look of their writing.


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