Review of Script & Scribble

Before the advent of the computer, people used various forms of ink, ink dispensers, and their hands to get words down on paper. This meant that everyone wanted – nay, that everyone needed – a pleasant and legible script. Some educators even go so far as to say that this is still necessary for brain development, and that handwriting should absolutely still be taught in schools. Whether you agree or disagree with this statement, you’ll find arguments for both sides, as well as a history of handwriting, in Script &Scribble: the Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey.

This book is neither long nor encyclopedic; rather, it’s a lively stroll through the development of writing and the ways in which it has been taught over the centuries.  Florey’s tone may be conversational, but she’s done her research, and the book reads like an introductory course taught by an inspired teacher – there are enough good stories here that the learning becomes entertainment. The book is divided into six chapters, each of which stands on its own but also connects with the others to form an elegant overview of penmanship and its ongoing controversies.

Florey is admittedly one of those who yearns for the trappings of a simpler time, mourning the rise of the impersonal box store, ready-made clothing, and lack of interest in penmanship. After beginning with this idea, she then takes us back to ancient times, when chiseling specific marks into a wall marked the beginning of a society built not on oral but written tradition.  As the centuries passed, scribes wrote for a variety of reasons: to preserve the great learning of antiquity, to facilitate communication across grand vast geographic reaches of empire, and to facilitate commerce. Different calligraphic scripts developed to further each of these ends.

In order to write these scripts, scribes needed implements.  Florey takes us from stylus to brush to quill, including the advent of graphite and the development of the pencil. Inks have also changed as pens developed; while we recognize the importance of Gutenberg’s printing press, we rarely stop to consider the relevance of the fountain or ball point pen to the alterations in society.  Reading about these tools reminds us of the importance of words, but also of personal connections to them over the centuries.

Florey reminds us that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are unique in that literacy is increasingly seen as a human right rather than as a marker for the rich. Because of this, pedagogical methods of teaching handwriting became increasingly important up until the advent of computers.  Today, of course, there is a great divide between those who remember studying handwriting in school and those who grew up printing before learning how to work a keyboard. Yet the interest in handwriting continues, as a means to journal and take notes but also as an aesthetic ideal.  Calligraphers can still find work scribing beautifully (although the hand is increasingly replaced by computer fonts), and many brain researchers feel that one simply learns better once one has learned cursive writing.

Along with the historical research, Florey brings up a number of philosophical questions regarding the aesthetics of handwriting.  Is graphology a fun pseudo-science or an intriguing subsidiary of psychology? Should handwriting be beautiful or simply useful? How do different fonts change the way we live our lives? And, of course, do we need handwriting in a keyboarding world?  Florey’s book doesn’t fully answer any of these questions, but it does provide a basis for beginning these conversations.  Script & Scribble is an enjoyable read for those of us obsessed with the act of writing.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the writer.  I borrowed my copy of this book from the Pasadena, California, Public Library.

Florey, Kitty Burns.  Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting. Melville House Publihing, Brooklyn, New York, 2009.  ISBN: 978-1-933633-67-1.

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