February 9, 2009

"Take a moment... take an hour... to try to revive and savor the antiquated pleasure of writing someone a letter."

"And then come back and say what it was like. Did you feel fidgety and impatient? Did writing feel too slow for your thoughts, or did it slow them down in a pleasurable and even fruitful way? Holding a pen to me is like holding an eager dog on a leash. Has your handwriting deteriorated from disuse, too?"

Well, I'm not going to do this, because everyone I know would either think it was crazy to write and mail a paper letter or feel oppressed by the implication that now they need to handwrite a letter.

But I do still use handwriting, and I often prefer it when I'm writing notes for my own private use — that is, not composing something for readers. I prepare for class by writing notes in the margin, and I teach the class using those notes along with the assigned text. I feel that the handwriting has a spirit to it that helps me a lot. It's not something I use to show my personality and feeling to another person, though I understand why handwriting conveys that. It's something that, for me, remains more closely interwoven with my continuing thinking about a subject. It's less final and it works better to keep me connected with the original text. Marginalia — it means a lot to me.

30 comments:

AllenS said...

The best of two worlds:

Write a letter, scan it, send an email with the letter as an attachment.

TheCrankyProfessor said...

I spent last spring semester in Rome and did it all by email - posted pictures on Flickr, sent people links to things I thought they'd liked, blogged daily.

This year I'm in Germany for the spring and I mailed my first 6 postcards.

The first thing I noticed? It feels MUCH less artificial to write a post card to a five year old than to send an email and say "have your Mommy read this."

What's more, the pictures are better, though I can still refer them to flickr by email!

traditionalguy said...

Are we allowed to scan it in and e-mail the handwritten note? Best way to compose is in a hurry, follwed by a later re-write to polish it up some. I can tell when it's written half the day before it's finished. The beautiful handwriting of some classy ladies is a work of art worth the time to appreciate. How they can go that slow is a wonder to me. Many men write like a good translator: five sentices comes out as a 5 word phrase that clearly communicates what is said. Then there are the Attorneys who try to write a 3 page brief showing off their scary knowledge when 2 or 3 sentices would do the trick and be appreciated more.

Nihimon said...

I design computer systems and databases for a living, and even with all the tools available to do those things on the computer, I still find it far more efficient to scribble out diagrams on paper notebooks. It matches the flow of thinking much more, and I don't have to waste brain power manipulating the tools that let me capture the actual fruit of my brain power...

Host with the Most said...

Receiving a personal handwritten letter is more precious than receiving flowers: it's value never diminishes. It conveys the value that the other person holds you in, that you are worth taking the extra bit of time it takes to handwrite in today's world.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

My handwriting is so horrible that I use Notepad to make my grocery lists.

I'm not kidding.

tim maguire said...

In my personal writing, I do it by hand even if I later have to type it in. I can't compose by keyboard.

When I'm doing a heavy reedit, I do it by hand. If it's from an electronic file, I print it out. The computer screen just can't compete with the ability to juggle the pages and lay them out physically before me. Microsoft word is fine for making the changes once I've settled on paper what I want those changes to be.

I've also noticed the publishing industry suffers for word processing programs as well. Books are getting longer (unnecessarily longer), authors more wordy. A lot of crap that in earlier times would have been edited out is making it into the final edition.

Brevity is the sole of wit and there is no better taskmaster than the need to retype all those pages you're rewriting.

Psychedelic George said...

"In a little-known letter, Charles Carter wrote to his brother about what a beauty she [Martha Dandridge Custis] was and how he hoped to “arouse a flame in her breast.”

“He was clearly sexually excited by her,” said Patricia Brady, a historian who wrote the first revisionist biography of Martha a few years ago. “When Martha decided to marry George, she didn’t marry him just to be a kind stepfather to her two children. He was a hunk, and I think she decided to make herself happy. People are just starting to see her as a real person.”

The fact that so little is known about Martha is, in part, her fault. After George Washington died, she, as was the custom of well-known people then, burned their correspondence. So we know George wrote two youthful love letters bursting with yearning and passion to Sally Fairfax, even though she was the wife of his good friend. We have a really bad poem he wrote as a teen to a young Virginia beauty (“Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun ... “). We have no idea what he wrote to Martha."

AllenS said...

In 1998, I received a 5 page letter from an ex-girlfriend. The typeface that she used was probably Corinthia, which made it look like handwriting. Letter writing? Look how many people on this blog, don't even use capital letters. Sheesh!

traditionalguy said...

This writing with pen and ink is aimed at eliminating Sir Archie's only communication tool. We will never no if we stepped on him, or Raid got him. He will be silenced forever. RIP Sir Archie.

Palladian said...

I still occasionally write letters by hand using a quill and iron-gall ink (that I made myself) on Capellades handmade paper. I then seal them with shellac wax and my initialed seal and slip them into another envelope, because the postal service is not kind to fine paper or to wax seals.

David said...

My handwriting could not get any worse, unfortunately. I was lucky enough to have absolutely outstanding, fabulous, smart and reliable secretaries in my career. There was virtually nothing they could not do, but reading my handwriting was always the highest achievement. Thanks again, ladies (they were all ladies.) Without you, I was nothing.

(Before everyone had email, I wrote tons of letters. I always typed them. I even typed law school exams in the 1960's.)

I don't get itchy writing letters even now. I love to write; it's one of the things I can lose myself in.

Ruth said...

I cannot write very much anymore without getting cramps in my hand. And the elderly writing is not like it used to be. I do have a goal of writing some handwritten notes for my grandchildren. As a person who is interested in family history and genealogy it has given me such pleasure to find notes and letters written by my forbears. I want to do that for the ones who come after me. I am thinking in particular of my great grandfather who immigrated from Germany circa 1870 after which he worked as a laborer. I had assumed him to be rather uneducated until I saw letters he wrote. They showed him to be well educated and with a beautiful handwriting. He was writing in English, his second language and his grammar was as beautiful as his handwriting. Handwriting is very useful in history.

Palladian said...

Don't believe my previous comment? Here's my seal.

PJ said...

Keyboarding has destroyed my long hand. I used to have decent penmanship. Now I can barely chicken scratch out anything longer than a grocery list. Letters are out.

I can't even receive them anymore. I get cranky having to decipher code. The content is rarely worth the time.

My brother, a wonderful thinker and writer, is the only one who I will accept letters from anymore.

onparkstreet said...

Oh, in keeping with my "I love paper theme" in a previous comment section, I love the idea of getting a letter - it feels like getting a present.

I have never had good handwriting and am thankful for keyboards because then I can keep up with my running thoughts.

(Greeting cards exist for a reason, you know. Also, postcards! The bloggy equivalent of a letter).

Ophir said...

Marginalia — it means a lot to me.

I wonder how many people got the allusion.

blake said...

I had the fateful confluence of an inclination to left-handedness and German nursery school teachers. As such I have some unease about which hand to use at any given moment in time, and this does not lend itself to fine writing.

I ditched the pencil and paper (except for drawing and graphing) quickly for a crotchety IBM Selectric, and when I finally got a computer, I did everything thereafter in type.

It was enough of a novelty to earn some rancor amongst those who marveled at typing things out, not realizing that it was far easier for me.

I take the occasional stab at handwriting, however, though it was never a pleasure.

Psychedelic George said...

Marginalia master Sergio Aragones...


"He became famous for his wordless "drawn-out dramas" or "marginals" which were inserted into the margins and between panels of [Mad]. The drawings are both horizontal and vertical, and occasionally extend around corners....

Aragonés has provided marginals for every issue of Mad since 1963 except one (his contributions to that issue were lost by the Post Office)."

He's 71.

Balfegor said...

Writing by hand is absolute torture for me. It's a struggle even to write longhand in English nowadays, and even when I get the letters to line up right, I come off like an absolute illiterate -- I inadvertently skip over articles and misspell the simplest words.

In my work, I take loads of handwritten notes (with copious doodles in the margins) and they are, I am quite certain, intelligble only to me and me alone. I have become so accustomed to using a mix of malformed letters, abbreviations, and Chinese characters that my notes would probably be useless to most other people. Indeed, I don't even use the characters in standard ways -- for example, I use 会 for "company," even though interpreting that correctly requires that you realise I am working off 会社, not 公司 (the former being Japanese, the latter Chinese, for "company"). Even when writing purely in English, I generally don't draw my letters normally any more, but fill them with extraneous loops and vertical flourishes, simply as a means of preventing what would otherwise be the natural result of my execrable penmanship -- the swift descent of my handwriting into illegibility, as distinct letters fade into a horizontal squiggle. Writing my letters incorrectly and injecting Chinese characters are the only way my notes retain even the slightest legibility. Proper penmanship requires a pronounced effort of will.

bearing said...

Ann, you do a lot of doodling on paper, don't you?

Is it worth commenting on the difference?

comstock said...

I'm with you, Ms Althouse. Despite holding an MS in Computer Science, with 40 years experience in the field. I write letters in Palmer Method longhand, using my cherished silver Mount Blanc fountain pen (medium nib, blue ink.

When a niece or nephew graduates college I send them a fine writing instrument, and instructions on how to use it.

Jay Reding said...

I love the feel of handwriting as well. There is something about the tactile sensation of pen on paper. It requires a level of mental focus and though that typing just does not.

It's one of those finer arts that we're slowly losing in society these days. There's something more deliberate about a hand-written document than some dashed-off email. I would hazard a guess that if people hand-wrote communications instead of emails and texts it would lead people to think about what they're saying just a bit more.

dick said...

Palladian,

After looking at your seal I ran through a lot of your other photos. Fantastic set of photos of all types. What a lot of interests you must have!

I especially loved the photos of that arthitectual artifacts store. I have a lot of friends who are into preservation of historical buildings and they love rooting through places like that. There used to be a bunch of them on Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn years ago.

amba said...

Here's my seal. Palladian: That's a thing of beauty.

amba said...

onparkstreet: astute -- to point out the blogginess of postcards. or maybe postcards were pre-electronic Twitter!

Host with the Most said...

Ophir said...

Marginalia — it means a lot to me.

I wonder how many people got the allusion.
1:33 PM



I did. That was the original name that Ann had for this blog.

Host with the Most said...

Starting last fall, I began rereading every Althouse post starting at the very beginning in January 2004.

Amazing how relevant so many of the topics and discussions still are today.

onparkstreet said...

Hey, thanks amba!

(I had another longer comment, but somehow it got 'eaten' up by blogger)

Oligonicella said...

Even when I try to write by hand now, it fails. I studied and worked doing shorthand and once could take dictation at 120. Now, within a minute or so, my writing devolves into some kind of personal variant. Problem is, even I can't figure it out later. Good thing I typed as well and do around 67 when I'm cruising. I also prefer the ease word processing gives me in moving, editing and so forth. I use graphic programs when I'm working on structure and the abstract flow.