Best for: Those who like trivia about everyday life – in this case, about handwriting. (For example, did you know that a typical pencil can draw a line thirty-five miles long?)
In a nutshell: Author Burns Florey takes the reader on a trip through the history of handwriting, from the very beginning, through those gorgeous (though illegible) tomes produced by monks in the middle ages, up to strict penmanship training in the early 1900s, and ending with contemplation of how handwriting fits into the digital age.
“In first grade she had to bring from home an official ‘letter of permission’ to the principal stating that no, it was not okay for her teacher to tie Eileen’s left hand down so that she’d learn to print the alphabet right-handed.”
“The truth is that millions of children are sent out into the world armed with lousy handwriting, great keyboarding skills — and no computer.”
Why I chose it:
I love to write (in journals and using my computer), and I love trivia. Seemed like a good fit.
Handwriting — specifically, cursive — is near and dear to author Burns Florey’s heart. In this well-researched and well-written (though poorly edited: the footnotes one of the six chapters are mis-numbered and hard to follow) book, she provides us with a history of handwriting, and includes some fascinating images and examples. She covers the tools used (including paper, pens, and pencils), the styles that came into and faded from heavy use, and even the teaching methods employed to improve handwriting. She also spends a good bit of time discussing what we can learn from handwriting, both by exploring handwriting analysis and by looking back at journals and diaries from those who came before us.
Some parts were more interesting than others; I always enjoy a good messy manuscript. Plus it’s a bit mind-boggling to look back at extraordinarily ornate books from the Gothic era and realize that they were meant to be read; I cannot make heads nor tails of many of these admittedly gorgeous scripts.
I found that the book sometimes spoke of two separate things as though they were the same, which convoluted the message. For Burns Florey, handwriting (specifically what people my age likely think of as cursive) is something to be valued and treasured, and she laments that people don’t have great script anymore. I get that — I have a friend who does hand lettering (she designed the logo for my website) and it is a joy to get one of her hand-addressed cards. However, Burns Florey also seems to be concerned that people type instead of write, and these are two very different things in my mind, yet get conflated in her writing.
I definitely appreciate the concern that people sending emails instead of letters written by hand means we won’t have these treasures in the future. But for me, it doesn’t matter if these letters are written in cursive or printed. I still send loads of hand-written notes, but none of them use cursive. I print basically everything. The fact that students today don’t learn cursive doesn’t, I think, mean that they won’t print things. Confusing? A bit, and I can see how easy it would be to intertwine these two concerns and end up with a book that treats them as the same issue. I think I would have appreciated the book more if Burns Florey had spent more time fleshing out the differences between the two.
One section that I think would have been interesting as a stand-alone article in a magazine explored why it is important to teach children handwriting (though, again, there seems to be some conflating of learning write cursive and learning to print). This book was published in early 2009, so computer and internet usage were certainly a big thing, and Burns Florey acknowledges this. But she does also point out that focusing on learning to type over learning to print or handwrite does put some people at a disadvantage: namely, those of lower incomes who are less likely to have a computer in their home. While 80% of children in the US have access to a computer at home, that number drops to 57% when looking at homes earning less than $15,000 / year. Additionally, non-Hispanic white children are more likely to have a computer in their home than Black or Hispanic children. If you can’t write legibly because you aren’t taught that in school, and you don’t have a computer to get your words out, your communication options can be limited. I hadn’t thought about the digital divide in that way before.
I started this book in mid-2018 but made it about 40% of the way through before it began collecting dust on my nightstand. As part of my 2019 reading goals, I’m hoping to either finish off those partially-read books of 2018 or accept that I’m just not that into it and move along. By choosing to just focus on this book this morning, I was able to finish it. That’s not the most ringing of endorsements, but it was an enjoyable and interest read just the same.
Keep it / Donate it / Toss it: Donate it.