missing ink“No, I didn’t learn handwriting.”

Last year I read what I thought was just about the nerdiest book ever. It was a history of stationery and it was incredible. This year, however, I have outdone myself with a history of handwriting. Yep. This is a 260-page look at every aspect of the written word, sometimes in more detail than you thought possible.

Philip Hensher, a writer and lecturer in Creative Writing (which is my own degree subject, incidentally) realised that he had no idea what one of his friend’s handwriting looked like. After more than a decade of friendship, this seemed impossible. Hensher sets about on a mission to find out whether handwriting really is dying out, and if so, what we can do to halt its decline.

Interspersed with interviews with friends, colleagues and relatives, Hensher investigates the different forms of handwriting that have come and gone over the years, why certain styles fall out of favour, how countries have their own styles, whether you can really tell anything about personality from handwriting, and how best to teach children how to write, before covering the history of the pen and its ink. He also looks specifically at Dickens and Proust, and how they dealt with handwriting in their work.

The book is a marvel and evidence that absolutely anything can become interesting if you look at it in the right way. I happen to be a big believer in the importance of people being able to write by hand and express themselves in this manner, even though, as I was reading it, I realise that I write less and less by hand all the time. Still, I have books and folders full of handwritten notes. There’s something wonderful about the simplicity of a pen and paper.

Although consistently interesting, a few of the chapters are a bit dry, but others are really rather funny, as Hensher inflicts his own prejudices and ideas on people and their handwriting. The book is peppered with illustrations, too, showcasing various examples of handwriting which liven up the text. Hensher is clearly very interested in his subject though, and his passion shines through.

This is a short review tonight, partly because I’m really tired, and partly because, as is often the case with non-fiction, it’s hard to discuss due to a lack of plot and characterisation. But don’t mistake short for unimpressed. It’s a fascinating social history, and might just make you want to pick up a pen again.