~ Posted by Simon Willis, October 8th 2012

The novelist Philip Hensher has a new book out. It’s called “The Missing Ink” and it’s all about handwriting, which Hensher fears is becoming a lost art. He discussed the book this morning on BBC Radio 4’s “Start the Week”, along with the poet Wendy Cope, the writer and editor Diana Athill and the philosopher Nigel Warburton.

Cope revealed that she begins all poems by hand, perhaps out of superstition, she said, but mainly for convenience: a notebook is easier to carry around than a laptop. Diana Athill said that when she begins a book review, she often doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to say. Writing by hand, she thinks, helps her work that out. Nigel Warburton said there’s a danger of writers who prefer pen and ink generalizing from their own experience, and becoming prescriptive.

And then there’s the matter of personality. When he was 15, Hensher explained, he spent some time in hospital. His sister had visited one day and at some point during her visit, Hensher had fallen asleep. She’d tucked a little handwritten note inside his copy of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”, which he was reading at the time. It didn’t say much—just that he’d fallen asleep and she’d come back later. Hensher recently rediscovered the note inside the book, and even though the message was banal, his sister’s personality shone out from the handwriting.

It was a point Ann Wroe made last year, in a piece about handwriting for Intelligent Life:

Though ostensibly silent, a handwritten letter from someone we know speaks with the voice—querulous, joking, ardent, tinged with an accent from Padua or Bulawayo—of its author.


We’re republishing her elegy for handwriting on the homepage today. Whether one is sad to see its passing or not, handwriting is certainly on the way out. Wroe noted that the writing test in America’s National Assessment of Educational Progress now requires students to type on a computer.

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors’ Blog include Lucian Freud’s wish and The bus to Wutai Shan