The Death of the Scribe in America

English cursive… remember this?

This morning on Preston and Steve they were talking about the fact that cursive script has all but disappeared in modern culture.  As a test, they all tried to write the alphabet (in all capital letters) in cursive without looking it up.  It was not shocking when none of the hosts could get very far–some were stuck on the letter ‘A’.  But it got me thinking if I could even do that.  Suffice it to say, my handwriting looks a lot like Copperplate Gothic font; I write in all capital letters, but I differentiate between the first ‘capital’ letter of a sentence or proper names by making that first letter bigger than the others.  I hardly ever use cursive, except for my signature, but even then it looks more like a doctors note than my cursive penmanship in grade school.

Handwriting as an art is dying; with the exception of teachers, grade school students, and the few meager notes you jot down to yourself to remind you to pick up toilet paper on your next shopping trip, can you even think of the last time you handwrote a letter or wrote a memo out for your job or scripted your next novel or book idea?  Chances are if you can think of such a recent time (within the past week?), you’re one of the very, very , few.   The chances are good that you’re not doing this all the time.  Even college students will bring in a laptop than a notebook to take notes, or just use their phones or some other device–only to later dictate notes to a laptop or desktop later.

In a way this all troubles me.  Handwriting is one of those few amazing links to the past.  Short of finding skeletal remains in situ, handwriting can tell you a lot about a culture in its progression, even about the person who wrote, because handwriting is personal.  When one looks at the script of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, you’re immediately looking at the handwriting of at least one scribe with whom you are immediately connected.  And it is recognizable.  Handwriting is still a way for historians to determine ones cultural setting, ones place in the past.  Not always–sometimes it is convoluted, but enough that it is still somewhat useful.  When a scholar looks at cuneiform, paleo-Hebrew, demotic, Greek, Latin, all identifiable


Handwriting was also the mark of a civilized world.  When a society grew to become a civilization, when it developed ‘culture’, it also developed language (specifically written language).  And they would write down their cultural heritage–usually fictional tradition or heavily mythologized.  And when they spread their borders, their culture came with them in the form of these myths and legends–written down or spoken,shared across cultural boundaries.    Whole writing classes–the scribal classes–were formed and run by the state (sometimes this enterprise was private–as privatized as it got in antiquity, anyway) and this class was structured specifically to maintain that cultural heritage.  They were tasked, essentially, with preserving these traditions and passing them on to a future scribal class.

So where does that leave us?  Where does that leave our culture?  Do we have one?  Is our representative culture online?  Have we now surpassed the need for individualized cultural traditions and, in that case, have we somehow transcended it by developing some sort of ‘humanization’?  Have we crossed onto a technological bridge where all culture will simply be represented by Times New Roman, 12 pt font?  Is that what we are?  Is that our expressed development?  I’m not sure if I’m ready to accept that.  I don’t know if I am ready to simply throw away individuality–my link to the future and the past–by giving up on handwriting.  So I think today I’m going to start practicing again.  Maybe it will take me some time to remember every stroke of the pencil, every curve of the letters, but I’ll get it.  Maybe I’ll write someone a handwritten note.  I think, just maybe, I can bring back some of that culture, at least for myself.

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