I scribbled a note on the crumpled envelope beside the keyboard, revelling in the feel of the pen on the paper. It is a nice pen. Cheap, nothing special to look at, but the ink glides over the virgin white in a way I can only call sensuous… an entirely physical flow that encourages the written word to take on the form and quality of art. My handwriting doesn’t usually look that good. I like this pen.
I have, like most people, several styles of handwriting that come completely spontaneously and seem to depend upon what I am writing and where… as well as the mood. There is the scrawl, almost illegible even to me, which covers pages of notebooks with strange ideas and concepts; sometimes simple, sometimes embellished ‘artistically’ with the kind of swirls and loops that would have any graphologist rolling their sleeves up and sharpening the metaphorical scalpel. There is the neat hand with which I write lists and information (I’m a Virgo, what do you expect?), or copy longhand the texts of borrowed books that I want to fix in memory. Scanning things into a computer doesn’t do that and you cannot ponder each word and phrase as you go. The cramped, rapid script that manages to fit huge amounts of stuff on the back of an envelope or scrap of whatever is to hand, and the letter-writing version I developed in self-defence after yet another ‘handwriting messy’ on an early school report. It still is, but at least I tried. It was an honest failure.
But of course, the art of letter writing… actual pen and paper stuff… has gone the way of most hand-drawn documents and joined the diplodocus and the brontosaurus over the past decade or so. Emails are easier, cleaner, cheaper, faster… and you get to keep a copy. On the other hand a generation of teenagers have already grown up without that thrill of mysterious acronyms on the seal of a letter that will live under the pillow and be read until it fades. They will not know the long, breathless wait for a response to their own heartfelt missive, nor look back in decades to come with a fond smile of memory when a carefully preserved note is discovered, long forgotten. Instead they will, if the SIM card survives and is readable, have a mere “K CU L8R x”.
Okay, that is generalising a bit. You can get a perfectly good love-letter by email. But you can’t stuff a computer under your pillow or see the tremor in the hand that wrote it, or the marks where the ink washed away with your tears. Yes, I know… but I never said I wasn’t romantic… I can melt with the best of them. In the same way those handwritten notes carry something of the personality of loved ones no longer around, more, perhaps, than a photograph. The image simply looks at a person… the letter is something they themselves touched and it carries a little bit of them, and us with it, into a future in which we ourselves will be no more than memories.
Growing up there were always my mother’s manuscripts lying around. One, in particular, a notebook of poems, showed the transition from child to woman in the way the handwriting changed. It was as if a little bit of her soul was caught in the beautiful handwriting I so envied and sought, unsuccessfully, to emulate. Those manuscripts I am slowly transcribing into digital documents that I can make into books. Proper books. With pages, and that smell of paper. Books that can be passed to future generations, preserving that little bit of my mother’s soul and it was that image, of small children snuggled up to with parents and a storybook at bedtime that had really set me thinking. I had read an article by Chris McMullen that had been reblogged by Chris the story reading ape. It detailed the new advances in Kindle for Kids and, although I can see all the practical possibilities of a Kindle, snuggling up with an electronic book at bedtime doesn’t seem quite right. There is a magic in a book that the ebook doesn’t capture for me, though no doubt paper books will one day go the way of the handwritten letter. It has, in fact, already begun, with bookless libraries being opened. Good for research and the environment no doubt, but not my cup of tea, though doubtless one day, only the dinosaurs like me will know that particular, fusty, utterly unique smell of an old and well thumbed book.