18 July 2014

On Hensher "The Missing Ink"

Hensher P (2012) The Missing Ink; how handwriting made us who we are London; Pan Books.

This is the review I posted to Amazon.co.uk. (one star) with some editing because Amazon readers would have some background information you wouldn't necessarily share:

OK. I didn't finish it. I threw it across the room at about p.135. (And reluctantly recovered it, to be fair for this review.)

This is such a wasted opportunity. There is so much to say about handwriting. There is a debate (principally in the States) about the necessity or otherwise of teaching what they call 'cursive' (joined-up) script. There is interesting (but early) neuroscience research about the difference between taking lecture notes by hand and by digital device.

Instead, we get a self-indulgent, self-admittedly sloppy (see jokey footnote on p.43), gratuitously padded (the useless "witness" testimonies between chapters), text clearly aimed at a limited coterie of the chattering classes (see the opening of ch.18 "When you are elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, as most English writers sooner or later are..." —which is egregious rubbish), which buries some interesting material under irritating ordure.

At the cost, indeed, of clarity. The examples of handwriting are not systematically chosen. There is no way to link the points made in the text to the illustrations (which are badly reproduced—although this book is not alone in this). I was particularly interested in the chapter on German orthography; I remember struggling with a book on „Deutschland und die Deutschen” for German O level in the late '50s. It was in black-letter typeface. (No, that's not the same as Gothic, at all--he does get that right.) But for all the discussion of the politics of orthography in Germany, where were the illustrations of actual handwriting? I have no clear idea of what Sütterlin or Fraktur actually look like.

At least Palmer's advice on writing with the whole arm (p.73-5) does provide some support for my own to teachers about how to write on boards!

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