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Writing Well About Writing Beautifully

Kitty Burns Florey says that her experience at parochial school inspired <em>Script & Scribble.</em>
Kitty Burns Florey says that her experience at parochial school inspired Script & Scribble.

At 5, teary-eyed, I announced to my mother that I never wanted to grow up, because adults' handwriting was ugly. When she asked what I meant, I pointed to her signature — a towering and illegible series of loops that barely fit in the space allotted — on a check she'd just made out. I couldn't even read cursive then, much less write it, but I was a bit of a hall monitor as a young child, and her penmanship didn't even seem to be the same species of writing as the flowing, even curves that covered the chalkboards in the second- and third-grade classrooms.

Nowadays kids are lucky if they learn to write as legibly as their parents did. As Kitty Burns Florey observes in Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, in our rushed, computer-obsessed society, schoolchildren increasingly are taught printing for a year or two, given a year of slapdash instruction in cursive, and then introduced to the keyboard sometime around grade three. It's not difficult to imagine a time, maybe a century hence, maybe sooner, when only experts can decipher the dips and curlicues of handwriting styles so prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Script & Scribble is an unusual, compelling blend of retrospective, lamentation and advocacy. The history of penmanship is filtered through the author's own lifelong obsession with the art of writing well. Florey first dutifully mastered the Palmer method from a nun with a blackened thumbnail, but in her teen years changed her handwriting constantly, in an effort not just at self-expression but self-invention. The way we form letters provides insight into who we want to be and may even offer clues about who we are. What, Florey wonders, will be the equivalent experience for a generation raised with the keyboard?

Contrary to the author's own best hopes, the book does occasionally stray into "kids these days" territory, but overall Florey keeps the finger-waggling to a minimum. What emerged most prominently for me from her quick and opinionated overview is a sense of how drastically writing has changed through the centuries without culminating in the death of civilization. Even the practice of training children to write in two stages — first in print, then cursive — is a recent phenomenon; the ball-and-stick print method kindergarteners learn was introduced only in the 1920s.

Florey ultimately advocates teaching kids a hybridized writing style, combining elements of print and cursive, that's based on 16th-century Italic writing. It's simple, attractive and easy to read. Even my 5-year-old self might have been satisfied.

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Maud Newton
Maud Newton is a writer, editor and blogger. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Newsday and other publications. She is a recipient of the City College of New York's Irwin and Alice Stark Short Fiction Award.