“The Missing Ink” by Philip Hensher (2012)

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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.


“Adventures In Stationery” by James Ward (2014)


A journey through your pencil case

A journey through your pencil case

“I grew up in Worcester Park, a small town in Surrey.”

There’s a line in David Nicholls’ One Day where the main character, Emma, wonders if her dream of writing is actually just a fetish for stationery. I confess that I’ve wondered the same about myself. I love a good pen, can’t resist a handsome notebook (I’ve got several that feel too good to write in), and have on occasion been to visit a branch of Staples just for something to do, only to find myself suddenly eager to buy in-trays or treasury tags, despite having no purpose for either.

Apparently I’m not the only person with a fondness for stationery, though, and I think there are few people more obsessed than James Ward, author of this book. I bought it last year thinking that a book about stationery sounded quite interesting, but it’s taken me a long time to work up the courage to admit myself nerdy enough to peruse it. As it turns out, and this is no exaggeration, this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read in my life.

Ward traces with undiluted joy the history of our desks from the first inks used in cave paintings right up to Clippy, the world’s most loathed paper clip. Along the way he tells us how products such as staplers, correction fluid, drawing pins, erasers, hole punches, pencils, compasses, date stampers, and ballpoint pens were invented, as well as bringing to life the histories of some of the stationery cupboard’s most famous residents, including Sellotape, Moleskine, Blu-Tack and STABILO BOSS.

This is the book that teaches you that the Americans still use different sized paper to everyone else, informs you about the competition between Marcel Bich and Laszlo Biro, and revels in the discovery of the glue that would revolutionise notetaking with the invention of the Post-It Note. Ward is, without apology, excited by all of these prospects, finding something interesting to say about everything from big, sturdy filing cabinets to the humble pencil sharpener. You’ll find out what inspired the Pritt Stick, why the pens in Argos are so rubbish, and who invented the pocket protector. Along the way there are disasters with leaky pens, glue that won’t stick, and ink that turns invisible when heated up, and a reassuring final chapter which emphasises that stationery is never going to be killed off entirely. Even computers have adapted – after all, think what the icons on computers are for, among others, “Cut”, “Highlight”, “Erase” and “Attach”. Even the “Create a New Post” here on WordPress has a pencil icon attached.

OK, so it isn’t a book to everyone’s tastes, and it’s very niche. When I’ve told people recently what I’ve been reading, I’ve got more funny looks than usual. But this really, genuinely, is an amazingly fascinating read. I could hardly put it down. Ward is amusing, and clearly unashamed of his love for the stationery cupboard, prone to buying products that are long since out of date but nonetheless possess a certain charm for him.

Any writer, artist or hoarder can find something here to amuse them, whether it’s the history of paper, the discussion on the threat that pencils so often seem to pose, a question on if it’s ever OK to take stationery from work, or Ward’s lamentation on the lack of London landmarks suitable for the end of a pen. Whether you ascribe quality to a Parker fountain pen, or prefer the sort that undresses a sexy woman when turned upside down, you will have owned at least one of the items covered in these pages.

Grab a pencil and a Post-It Note, and remind yourself to get hold of this book as soon as possible.