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.
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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.
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).
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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.