Three nights ago my son asked me to translate (his word) a letter he received from a customer communicating something related to my son’s home business. Was the letter in German, for which I have some crude (very crude) translating skills? French? Sometimes he does receive notes in those languages. This time, not so. The letter was in English but composed in cursive handwriting, and my son was at something of a loss to decipher it.
I saw this day coming. When he was a child, I tried to teach him to write in cursive but he found it burdensome. The abundance of keyboards in our household eventually shouted me down. So that mysterious letter when it arrived might as well have been written in a foreign or archaic language–maybe even an argot as arcane and encrypted as the language of the birds.
As if in accord with some cringe in the cosmos, an article appeared the following day on the KSL News website announcing that the teaching of cursive handwriting skills may be on its way out of the public school curriculum. If you go by the news article, debate on whether or not it should be taught can hardly be called “hot,” but it is interesting. One side says that knowing how to write in cursive–also called “longhand”–helps develop literacy and cognitive skills. The “keyboard camp,” as the article calls the interest group dismissive of cursive, calls longhand “archaic,” saying, “kids simply don’t need to write as much these days.” Indiana schools have chosen to discontinue altogether teaching penmanship skills to their elementary students.
First, I love how people trot out the word “archaic” by way of mounting irrefutable argument for a thing’s uselessness and for the necessity of disposing of it. Second, while I’m totally stoked to learn that I’m proficient in a specialized and increasingly rare skill–composing in and reading longhand script–I’m also faced with my magical know-how’s practical problems: 30 years of my journals, which at first I kept in obedience to Mormon church authorities’ urgings and later because I saw the sparkling virtues of recording my unlikely adventures, are set down in cursive writing. My journals are a legacy I want to leave to my kids. Several years back, a representative of the BYU Lee Library asked that I consider donating them to the library. Why would anybody want my journals? Because they contain records of my relationships with professors whose presence at BYU during the time I attended is, in some ways, definitive of BYU’s history during that period. These professors include such influential figgers as Marden Clark, Arthur King, Clinton Larson, Leslie Norris, and others. Whole conversations with these folks are recorded therein, in longhand. I turned down the request for several reasons, but mainly because I want my kids to inherit the journals in the originals, with all the idiosyncrasies of my longhand style intact. But–darn it–the little darlings can’t read them.
Not to detract from the wonders of the electronic frontier and its exotic keyboard gateways, but I’m in the “cursive writing skills help develop memory and other cognitive skills” camp. And not that keyboarding doesn’t come with its own brain-building perks. Better, I think, to nurture skills in both métiers. Under certain circumstances, I’m also something of a sensualist. At any time during my journal-keeping days, I could have typed them (I did, a few, but they’ll need to be re-typed in order to survive many more years). Beginning in the early 90s, I might have committed them to computer memory. But since the late 70s I have enjoyed the feel of picking up a journal, carting it to some meaningful place, and in my own, individualistic style recording events that have affected me deeply. Also, I enjoy the freedom of movement and the expressiveness of cursive that emoticons can’t rival, even when animated. To this day, when I read complex language, I keep notes in longhand, copying passages like a medieval monk in a monastery library. I do it that way, first, to rethink the idea by shaping with my own hand the words of another’s difficult thoughts–a form of repetition–and second, to savor the sensations of scribing in my own pen strokes strangers’ thoughts that stir my own thoughts and feelings. And you know, no one can affix spyware to my handwriting as they can to smiley faces or free cursors. The independent, untrackable (some would say inscrutable) scratch of my pen moves in a sphere separate from that electronic one where I merely use somebody else’s tools, usually after agreeing to allow them to exploit for their own commercial purposes my twitch for articulating thoughts in the Great Electronic Out Loud.
The article does a bit of hand-wringing over the prospect of valuable family documents being “lost in translation” as “family journals and handwritten letters would all look like hieroglyphics to generations who can’t read cursive.” I think that statement a little silly, sound-bite hyperbole. But after my recent experience with my son, my mind’s eye flits uneasily over all the longhand letters from students, friends, and family members that I’ve kept for posterity, all the boxes of handwritten notes, including what amounts to “chats” that took place during BYU classes as I passed scraps of paper back and forth with friends during lectures. I came across one such chat recently, tucked inside my copy of Gadamer’s Truth and Method from Jim Faulconer’s hermeneutics class back in the 80s. My part of the conversation was written in a rather florid longhand. My partner in conversational crime–whomever it was–bespoke himself in a plaintext closer to printing. We were discussing reasons for Arthur King’s unusual behavior in class that day. I also made mention of Eugene England’s hosting a gathering at his home that evening to discuss the quality of teaching in the English department; only students were invited. It’s another scrap of my life–and Arthur’s–and Eugene’s–where they intersected, a shard whose meanings might someday require a graphologist to spell them out for the uninitiated.
The keyboard gang complains that cursive writing’s readability varies from person to person and can be difficult to read. Yes. That’s one of the hazards of individualistic practices–they require critical thinking skills to interpret them. Will standardizing letter strokes via keyboards and drop-down selection bars of common fonts correspond to greater intelligibility and insure seamless communication?
For now, I’ll continue keeping my journals the long way around–in comfy nooks, in bed away from a noisy household with me propped up on pillows, or on the back porch steps in morning sunshine. With a gel pen or one of my fountain pens, which allow for sharp sweeps of the pen tip and gliding stokes, I’ll set down my take on the story of my life in a black track of symbols set in relationship to one another, spelling out thoughts via their varied arrangements, embellished with my unique way of inking. I’m not very sympathetic to “I cannot read a closed book” complaints. The kids will just have to figure out a way to crack my cursive code. My youngest daughter shows a spark of interest in learning to write in longhand, though she can’t yet read mine. Perhaps she’ll come through for me. Or maybe by the time the two ambulatories are old enough to be interested in what their mother was up to when she was much, much younger, there will be an app for converting even the most idiosyncratic longhand to boring old universally readable Times Roman font–BabelFish for cursive script. If that ever happens, we might then have reason to worry about thousands of visual inflections being lost in translation