Handwriting will never be replaced as an instrument of thought, any more than writing could displace talking out loud.
Tomorrow I leave for somewhere without any internet. I will have a fortnight on my own with three books, no television and no neighbours. There won’t even be any darkness, since I will be just below the Arctic Circle. And I’m wondering why or whether I should take a laptop with me. The question may sound quite absurd: why take an instrument of work on holiday? I certainly don’t want it for playing films or anything like that. There is some music on the hard drive, but it’s coming with me as a writing implement and as a way of storing and “developing” photographs. All of a sudden, as I thought about weight and bulk in luggage, I wondered whether I might not just buy a paper notebook out there and write in that, by hand.
I’ve always kept a pen and paper to one side of my typing implements since I started to use a manual typewriter 30 years ago. In the beginning, this was because I typed slowly and painfully and could handwrite fleeting illuminations at the speed of thought. Typewriters also taught me to think out a sentence before I wrote a word. Even electric ones were difficult to correct, and manual ones make it more or less impossible to change what has been written tidily; so the bad habit I had acquired of writing half a sentence out in longhand and then scribbling and re-scribbling until it came to an end somewhere was painfully eradicated.
Of course, with word processors it’s easier to dither. The first macro I write for any new program deletes back to the beginning of a sentence that’s got lost, so I can start it again. But at least I now try to have the whole of it clear in my mind before I start and I now type more quickly than I can write legibly by hand.
So now my use of pencil and paper has changed round. I need it for when I want to write slowly and when there will only ever be at most one reader, me, and sometimes fewer. Nor do I nowadays keep a special notebook for such jottings. I just grab the nearest piece of paper with an empty space on it, which makes it even harder to find and collate notes afterwards. Nonetheless, the very simple if hardly crude technology has real advantages over anything invented since.
It may be different for people who learnt to type early in life, but for me there is an extraordinary direct connection, almost bypassing my consciousness, between brain and ballpoint. It’s as if I hear my own voice as I watch it emerge on the paper. That’s not true at all with a keyboard which is always noisy and always produces regular results. But thought isn’t regular, and doesn’t come in lines — at least mine doesn’t. It comes in gouts, or flurries, falling at different places on the page and different angles. Later, when I go back to these pages, there is all sorts of metadata encoded in the way the patches of writing are arranged. Looking at each one, I remember not just what I wrote, but what I was thinking while I wrote it. There’s a richness and complexity in these notes to myself that no other medium can surpass.
For public communication, this doesn’t work as well. Old-fashioned bureaucrats learned a regular standardised hand. Quirks, trills and elaborations were quite taboo. For that sort of purpose a typewriter — and, later, a computer — really was an advance, though from the executive’s point of view there was nothing so satisfying as paying someone else for turning your thoughts into something that could be read and even understood.
But I don’t think handwriting will ever be replaced as an instrument of thought, any more than writing could displace talking out loud. Even handwriting hasn’t entirely replaced talking for me. I still try to say the sentences I write out loud as someone will have to hear them in their head sometime.
No new technology can ever entirely improve what it replaces. In the case of handwriting these are probably the most intimate and important thoughts we’re ever going to have. Even being hard to copy is an advantage sometimes — you don’t have to remember passwords for your privacy, just scribble. This is a technology so far ahead of its time it even has built-in encryption.
(Andrew Brown is the author of Fishing in Utopia (Granta). He blogs at thewormbook.com/hlog)