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Welcome to the inaugural piece for “Ephemera,” a column dedicated to literary culture and pedagogy on all things immaterial-material. “Ephemera” is indeed a play on impermanence—of thoughts, of writing—and temporality will be a guiding theme of this column. “Ephemera” is therefore an acknowledgement that the ideas presented in this column should not be fixed indefinitely; they are not inscrutable, universal ideas but always specific to their cultural and temporal (and experiential) contexts. Ephemera as temporal marginalia. Infused with wit, of course.
Perhaps it’s only fitting to begin this column with a piece about handwriting, that fleeting art form of yesteryear, that mode of communication quickly becoming obsolete in the Age of New Media. (With irony, then, I admit to writing this piece electronically; my fingers flitting about the keyboard of my laptop. Why would I handwrite this piece if it must be submitted electronically?)
This semester in all of my seven—yes, seven (yes, ah, “adjuncting”)—undergraduate courses I am requiring that students do a fair amount of in-class writing assignments—all handwritten. Why? Because the mind, I think, functions differently writing by hand as opposed to typing. The temporality of handwriting has a longer duration than that of typing, which both contributes to the need to and requires us to think longer about the words that we are actually writing. The fact that it takes longer to write something by hand than to type necessarily forces us to think longer, more judiciously, about what we’re writing.
This assessment of the cognitive demands of handwriting finds its corollary in Nicholas Carr’s much-cited essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in which Carr contends that the internet has resulted in a “sea change in the way we read and think.” Quoting the work of developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf, he explains,
But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
The “skimming” reading method is a consequence of reading online, on glowing screens with multiple windows running, with pop-up images assaulting us with every click or scroll. We are what we read, and, arguably, we are how we write. Regarding reading’s companion, writing, Carr notes that Nietzsche, upon acquiring his first typewriter in 1882, observed that the machine affected how he wrote; it altered the act of translation from thought to word, from mind to page: “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts,” he responded to a friend who also commented upon the change (“tighter” and more “telegraphic”) in his writing.
The brevity-effect of technological advances in new media is counter-intuitive to the necessary work of “deep thinking,” of both critical thinking and critical writing—two skills that I try to help my students develop in both my literature and my composition courses through close reading and in-class (hand)writing exercises. Not surprising, they are initially resistant to the idea, but they soon understand the educational advantages of this practical work. They must think more. Individually. Without any technological aid (or Google searches).
In his new book on the intellectual and cultural value of handwriting, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (And Why it Still Matters), Philip Hensher claims that handwriting, as an act of “sensory engagement” between body and pen, enables a kind of cerebral intimacy impossible in electronic forms of writing. He recently published an abbreviated manifesto of handwriting in The Guardian, “Why handwriting matters,” in which he asserts that the disabuse of handwriting has rendered us less human in our critical thinking capacities. Handwriting in this sense becomes a spiritual practice of coming to know the self through the kind of “deep thinking” that Carr laments as having vanished in the Age of New Media.
[H]andwriting…involves us in a relationship with the written word that is sensuous, immediate and individual. It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people. It gives pleasure when you communicate with it. No one is ever going to recommend that we surrender the convenience and speed of electronic communications to pen and paper. Though it would make no sense to give up the clarity and authority of print which is available to anyone with a keyboard, to continue to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity.
In all sorts of areas of our life, we enhance the quality of our lives by going for the slow option, the path which takes a little bit of effort…. Sometimes, we don’t just push a pre-prepared meal into the oven and take it out some time later. We chop and prepare vegetables; we follow a recipe, and we make dinner from scratch, with pleasure. We often do this because we love people, and think they are worthy of our effort from time to time. Sometimes we don’t get in a car and get to where we have to go as soon as we possibly can. We open our front doors, and go for a walk in the spring sunshine and feel better for it.
The “connection” is not virtual but physical, and in this physicality comes empathy, understanding, and knowledge. That said, I don’t think that handwriting is simply an aesthetic craft evocative of Ruskin’s “the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.” There is a critical difference between the deliberate, slow movement of handwriting and the fast-paced, perfunctory tapping of the keys on a laptop that expresses the intellectual discrepancy—the difference in and of rigour—between these two enterprises of communication.