The moving finger writes

This Umberto Eco piece lamenting the decline of penmanship (which generated responses cited and critiqued in this excellent Ducks and Drakes blog post) strikes me as a higher-toned version of the ludicrous old-fart thinking that has George F. Will denouncing denim, or numberless cranks complaining that people no longer get dressed up for air travel.

For me, functionality trumps all over considerations. Unless you’re flying first class, dressing up like Cary Grant for the airborne cattle car that is the modern airliner just means you’re likely to ruin a good suit. As for Will’s Savanarola rants about denim — winger, please. If it weren’t for the bow-tie and the bigger vocabulary, you’d be indistinguishable from Glenn Beck.

Whatever gets me to the writer’s thoughts most quickly is what counts, and my opinion of the quality of those thoughts depends on graceful construction and cogent phrasing rather than the loops and whorls of Palmer penmanship. Yes, a handwritten note should be legible and easy to understand, but it’s ridiculous to think that lovely handwriting tells us anything useful about the author or his work. Eco’s complaint also leads, inevitably, to the canard that PCs and mechanical aids to writing lead to rushed, sloppy work. Plenty of egregious nonsense has been written with goose quills, typewriters, and PCs. The writer himself is the most important piece of equipment.

I love writing on computers for the same reason I love taking pictures with a digital camera. My Canon A590 removes most of the technological barriers that once stood between the image I wanted and the photograph I got. No doubt there are photography geeks who believe the only true image is one obtained by turning one’s room into a toxic-waste dump of chemicals, with chance elements of stray light and faulty gear added to the mix.

There are also snots who insist that the real writers use typewriters instead of PCs. The real hardcore ones narrow it down to manual typewriters instead of electrics, as though one’s character and creativity were enhanced by jamming an Underwood platen with a Dagwood sandwich of white paper, carbons, and onionskin backup pages.

Yessir, it was a great spur to creativity when the sheets would slip across the carbons and your pages ended up looking like a chimney sweep’s hankie, or you’d commit a typo and have to make corrections, a chore about as enjoyable as backing a tractor-trailer onto a Dixie cup. If writing is rewriting, then the removal of the tedium involved in setting up a typewritten page can only improve a writer’s work by making him more willing to go back and rework his thoughts.

As for the aesthetic experience of reading finely wrought script, all I can say is that  people in need of a Palmer Penmanship fix can enroll in a calligraphy class. Eco is a semiotician, and  from my layman’s perspective I have to say that mistaking the box for its container is an occupational hazard of the semiotics trade.

Gee, Steve, cranky much?


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