The last of the penmen

When I was taught to read and write, I was also taught penmanship. I loved the word penmanship and love it still, even though my penmanship is a disgrace. The word presents mysteries the dictionary does not have answers for. Is the suffix -ship, so bracing and Old World, added to the title penman? Was there ever such a thing as a penman? Am I, to the degree that I value handwriting over the keyboard stroke, a penman? Or is the more interesting suffix -manship — as in brinkmanship — added to the simple root pen? Either way, it’s an august word.

My penmanship took a long time to fall apart. In the private Christian school I attended in first grade, we learned our letters in what we called “print” style, but abandoned that style as soon as we could master cursive, which was “real” handwriting. Printing was for babies. I was surprised and dismayed later as I made my way through public school to find that a large number of my classmates wrote in print and not cursive. I thought it displayed ignorance. I didn’t even know how to write in print anymore. But sometime in my twenties I gradually switched over, when it became clear to me that I could write more legibly in print, and that there was apparently no shame in it. My print style looked awkward at first, and it took me a long time to work out what to do with rs and qs, but I had become thoroughly disillusioned with my cursive.

My friend Jeff — schooled one row over from me in the same classroom —  had a very tidy, unrushed, and accurate hand, even if it was a little starchy. His was a cursive that leaned forward but held its shape. There were not many mistakes and crossouts in his letters to me over the years, whereas I was always writing in a hurry and my letters and journals were full of blunders, not (only) of concept but of execution. I was sloppy. Am sloppy. “Word processing” hides this fact, and too, as a critic of Jack Kerouac once pointed out, typing is not the same as writing. My handwriting was upright and a little broader than Jeff’s, with more generous loops, but I would always get to thinking faster than I could write, so that my cursive would eventually start leaning further forward and becoming more clumsy, until it was like Dick Van Dyke tumbling into a room. 

We spent an awful lot of time on penmanship, given what it’s come to, which I’m about to give an example of.

*  *  *  *

It is tempting to imagine that the public library is a haven for books and the champion of the printed word. By “books” I mean in this case things printed on paper, and by “the printed word” I mean type or handwriting or other markings set down on paper.

But it would be a mistake so to imagine. I refer you to exhibit A, a pop-up text pane that popped up online recently when I hovered over the little icon of the cell phone, which puzzled me.


Exhibit A: Whose side is the library on, anyway?


I was perusing the Seattle Public Library’s catalog for — wait for it! — a book on bookbinding, and when I got to the entry giving details for the book, there was this little icon of a cell phone next to it. Wondering what that was, I hovered over it, and well… you see what I saw. I was being encouraged to text this information to myself rather than bother to write it down. I grabbed a screenshot of it and I submit it to you for your slack-jawed dumbfounding.

Of course, it would be unseemly for me to o’erplay my alarum at reading a tip from my local library suggesting that using a pencil and paper would be so hideously inefficient that the idea is dismissed with rhetorical humor. After all, I was using their ONLINE catalog. I wasn’t flipping through a card catalog in a wooden cabinet*. And look, I’m writing and publishing my blog virtually, instead of on paper. You can’t get around the fact that the easiest way, and sometimes the only way, to do many things these days is electronically, and I doubt that libraries are chartered to do things the hardest possible way (many government organizations actually do have such mandates, but I don’t think libraries are among them).

*  *  *  *

When I saw above note, it reminded me that libraries since the dawn of time have been chiefly concerned with preserving, at the very least, information and records, that is to say data, and in the best cases knowledge itself, for future access. The medium of storage, transfer and access is a secondary concern, I would venture to argue. (It should be noted here that a Library of Congress archivist once told venerable Seattle newspaperman Knute Berger that the best method for preserving written information is terra cotta — as in clay pots — because the technology will never get obsolete and it has been proven to be very effective against the ravages of weather, fire, and flood, as well as mischievous people with short arms).

But I confess I am still a little surprised to see this. A little. Don’t the love and appreciation of the vast and long-a-building body of scientific and cultural knowledge that one assumes thumps in the breast of every librarian sort of go hand in hand with a love and appreciation for the medium that has been the go-to medium for so much of the time that we humans have been submitting that knowledge for preservation? Or am I really confusing librarians with book preservationists? As more and more space is given over to tables with Internet-enabled computers on them and less and less space is devoted to books and other printed items, I begin to wonder in what way the library would continue to be a library if a day finally comes when people only go there to get online and download information to their i-Berries, and a certain breed of smartypants finds it a titillating bit of trivia that the etymological root of the word library means “book”. And then they’ll have to explain that “libraries used to have books in them, that’s why…you see…oh never mind.”

Is my life really such a thing of milliseconds, microseconds and nanoseconds that to reach for a writing implement — a pen is never further than an arm’s length away from me and often as close as my coat pocket — is counterproductive? Is productivity the measure of everything? (Hint: my answer to that question has only two letters in it.) And have we given any thought to what may be happening to portions of our brains that are no longer being exercised because we no longer write anything by hand longer than a grocery list? And do we really want to be dependent on our phone service provider for every little snippet of info we want to write down and remember? Or is it that memory itself is no longer a value for our species, because everything is theoretically “retrievable” from some database, even our own notes to ourselves? None of these are rhetorical questions (well, just the one). I read an article recently suggesting that in the future, like tomorrow, memory and specifically the ability to recall knowledge will be less important as a job skill than focus, the ability to see through and filter data to find what is relevant and useful. Everything you could commit to memory, I guess, would be obsolete as soon as you did so, and access to the ever-changing relevant data is assumed to be guaranteed.

Even ten years ago, I would not have known what kind of world to imagine where the phrase “send yourself a text message” would make sense. I prefer not to text myself, thanks. I would sooner drop little notes into terra cotta pots.

*In downtown Seattle, the old wooden cabinets with thousands of cards in them were replaced by a computer-based system, I believe, even before our new post-space-age library was built, all except those at the very tippy top floor in the Seattle section — where librarian Carol Lo recently demonstrated to me their beautifully antiquated usefulness in finding local newspaper articles on hundreds of topics indexed by hand over the last hundred and some years. Most of that information is not electronically catalogued, so if there’s a fire in the SPL much of that history will be history.

11 Responses to “The last of the penmen”

  1. 1 Kip January 31, 2010 at 12:55

    I have always thought you had marvelous penmanship, Matt. Mine leaves much to be desired. I find, however, I still prefer to write myself notes regarding things to remember. Not necessarily lists, but simple things like “call so and so about this..” or “send a copy of the State Farm commercial to Frank.” Dates, and important numbers and the like I must, sorry to say, use my i-Berry. I have for many years tried to use a traditional calendar, but I find I cannot remember to LOOK at it! The little alarm goes off, a note pops up on the screen, and the light bulb goes off over my head! Oh yes, an appointment! I would have completely forgotten! And phone numbers! I used to know everyone’s number. Now, just look up the name in the phone, push the button, and BOOM! Connected. However did we get along in high school without cell phones? Oh yeah, face to face communication!!!!

    • 2 jstwndrng January 31, 2010 at 18:20

      Kip, yes the gadgetry does make it easier, and in the harried and hurried lives we live, that’s worth a lot. I experience the same thing with phone numbers these days, and that’s exactly the point I was making. You don’t have to actually remember it anymore, just know how to access it in your contacts. There are a few that have stuck all my life: I still remember your old phone number in Medina when we were kids (455-9484, wasn’t it?) and Jeff’s (454-7325, and even earlier it was Glencourt [GL] 4-7325.) Our phone number when I was a kid was GL4-2681, and for some reason it changed in my teen years to 455-9634. I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s a piece of fam trivia that I’ve been meaning to write down. When I say write down, in this case, I guess I don’t really mean write down. Hmm.

  2. 3 Kip January 31, 2010 at 18:28

    Amazing! When I saw those phone numbers, they looked just like I remembered them! The last 4 of Dad’s number are still 9484, making it easy to remember. 455-9634. Man, does that bring back memories!

    • 4 jstwndrng February 1, 2010 at 16:28

      I’ve been debating whether or not to make a smart remark about the numbers still looking the same as you remember them because we still use Arabic numerals 😉

  3. 5 leatherhead109 February 1, 2010 at 16:43

    As for me, I have difficulty writing by hand because my hand hurts a great deal olding (sp: ‘olding) the pen after about half a page. But, when I do make it through a whole page with slaughtering the penmanship, I do feel strikingly ridiculous. After all, when was the last time you held a hand written correspondence?

  4. 6 Kip February 1, 2010 at 18:59

    Well, Matt, I see your point. I should say it this way: I seem to recall that the order of the numbers, as you have typed them, are numbers in a certain order that I recognize as phone numbers from the past, that connected me to friends. I LOVE witty banter! (If I knew how, I’d put a smiley face here!)

  5. 7 jstwndrng February 1, 2010 at 20:19

    @Kip, good to know I can yank your chain with impunity. For the smiley face, try just typing a colon and an end parenthesis. Most browsers will render that as a cartoon smiley.

    hey, nice avatar! I see you’re blogging on WordPress now. I’ve gone ahead and subscribed so I’ll know when you post. If you post regularly, I’ll add you to my blogroll here.

    I don’t know when last I received a letter written by hand. It was probably a letter from Grandma, may she rest in peace. I’ve recounted elsewhere in the blog my failed attempt to establish a written penpalship with a bloke from Missouri. People are too busy. You’d have to pay someone. (Hey!)

  6. 8 Louis February 2, 2010 at 12:05

    About 20 years ago, I rediscovered the joy of cursive writing with a fountain pen. I was using a vintage pen with a replaced ink bladder. There was a store in Vancouver that sold pens and ink. They had some great colors too. It was always frustrating, though, to be in the middle of a letter and a big BLOTCH of ink made its way onto the page. GLencourt 4-6862.

    • 9 jstwndrng February 2, 2010 at 12:56

      I think they used to make big spongy blotters with a handle for just such effluations. I’ve seen TV “reenactments” of presidential letter-writing where a splotch of ink happens and they reach for this big blotter and just roll it over the page, then blow once and keep writing. Still, you can’t believe EVERYthing you see on PBS. If I call 454-6862 am I gonna get the Mom of Louis or the Dad of Louis on the line?

  7. 10 Louis February 4, 2010 at 14:08

    No, sadly they changed the number years ago. But that was our original number for a good 30 years. I wonder who owns it now?..

    • 11 jstwndrng February 4, 2010 at 21:08

      There’s just one way to find out, buddy. [Picks up a POT {plain old telephone} and sets it down with the rotary side facing Louis.] It would make a good blog entry.

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