Saturday, 9 May 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-fourth: Handwriting Conversion

Sometime in the fifteenth century handwriting lost its grip. The day started well. It nearly always does. The precise day is hard to calculate. But on that day the perfection of alphabet blocks took its first steps towards child’s play for compositors everywhere.

This was by no means the end of handwriting, which continues to this day in one shape or another. Just as the lost art of letter-writing keeps being rediscovered by those with pluck and something to say, so its concomitant enabler curves across a fresh page, happier than any emailer in their own personal hell or twitterer of witless brevity. Handwriting centres thought and lets it dash to the edge of the page. Handwriting is in no hurry but can gather pace, quicker than a keyboardist. Handwriting flexes its muscle, waving through silence as if the world had stood still. We can almost hear its music in isolation.

But on that day medieval took a turn towards modern: typeface commenced its sweeping replacement of the written word. Did handwriting take a wrong turn to end up excluded from its own natural home? Or has it simply traced the road more taken, wandering where it will at immense speed?

Trying to imagine the handwriting beneath an author’s published pages, the frantic scribble-de-hop that stands Times New Roman in their book, is an impossible ask. Publication has erased the hand that wrote the typeset finale. The moving finger’s letters are now a figment of the forgotten. Libraries are full of it.

That is to say, behind the print books with their shelf life of one year or a hundred, their pages of uniform types conveying every thought under the sun, lie ghostly the lost handwriting of their authors. The entire emotional import of handwriting itself has been phased out of the reading equation. We can only guess in what state they wrote down their ecstatic vision, their cool scientific theory, or rampaging historical knowledge fresh from eye witnesses. That the author fractured her writing hand and wrote her greatest work with the other is a diagnosis lost in a fog of Baskerville. The library is a great suburb of conformed versions, shelves of addresses all the same, with respectable presentation and eye-catching normality. Any idea with half a spine is found there.

Display cabinets of writers’ original manuscripts deepen this awareness of loss. The unforgiving novelist’s letter to her companion, written without aid of ruled lines, causes titters and knowing harumphs in the hallway of a great library. The enflamed poet’s unending flame rages across a romantic sheaf. The tremendous homilist enlists kindly if sadly the visitors’ stepping stone attention, who little think that all literature was once done like this.

This vast tabula rasa debacle deepened when, sometime in the twenty-first century, handwriting underwent conversion. ‘Under went’ is a way of saying it. A person’s handwriting on screen can, with a touch of the same moving finger, convert that screed into script, the very best font that computer compositors can muster. Remarkable is one dropdown way of putting it as our markings are remade with a flick of the switch. Simply by shaking the sandbox we can save our manic half-legible excitement or dedicated secretarial application to the power of the micro-batteries and magnetic accessories. Secretary is a word of the past.

This is by no means the end of handwriting, which continues to this day in quiet undetected corners of the room, far from the eyes of zoom and instagram. Converting notes into text will still have to develop ways of crossing troublesome t’s or dotting idiosyncratic i’s. Whether technology thus improves the lot of human existence, or just makes us lazier, is the topic of our next essay, due this Friday and remember to follow the authorised style layout. Handwriting belongs to its owner and explains more than simple grammar. Handwriting hurries along to the next engagement but blanks when the slideshow’s too fast. Handwriting is permanently available, jotting down the phone number, collecting the shopping list.

Yet backward in time there is still not the invention that converts type into handwriting. How remarkable would it be if our samey texts, our keyboard-written notes were converted back into one’s personal handwriting. Or there could be options. Victorian copperplate conversion at a trice, Elizabethan Bardic straggle conversion, Chinese ideogram conversion: possibilities flourish forth beyond the hard looks of Silicon Valley. 

And what if, say, print books with their shelf lives and uniform types could be converted back into the original handwriting. Ranges of outward activity would meet the inward eye, the vibrant cursives of the lost novelist, smouldering rampage of the poet, and yet unknown revelations of the preacher. Emotional import would phase in fresh readerly understandings. Left and right would resume their dialogue. We could intuit anew their states of ecstatic vision, cold practical demand, raging historical fury, perhaps better than many of the eye witnesses. Instead, we must do with the conformist versions in predictable verticals, horizontals and bends, all of that same old eye-catching normality. For further insights, follow the footnotes.

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