Because of its everyday presence, paper is an artefact taken for granted and without a popular history. Ian Sansom’s beautifully produced Paper: An Elegy is “an attempt to trace and recover some of its history in its many forms” – literature, packaging, advertising, maps, art, currency, etc.
Sansom reminds us capitalism came into consciousness through paper. Since the 19th century, we have, in fact, been dominated by its many uses and in an increasingly electronic age we, ironically, use more of it, not less.
The sad side of paper’s progress comes not just with the deforestation, say, of the Brazilian rainforest but with a growing lack of intimacy in our use of it as a means of communication. From being a rare handmade commodity discovered by the Chinese some 2000 years ago, it has progressed to the point where modern American man uses some 340kg of it each year. Technology hasn’t replaced paper, merely “shifted the point at which it’s used”.
The email revolution has all but destroyed the antique art of letter writing, and the book’s elegiac quality surfaces when Sansom records Lord Byron creating Don Juan on the back of Venetian playbills, James Joyce scribbling bits of Ulysses on whiskey advertisements or JRR Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings on undergraduate exam papers.
How many contemporary poets, I wonder, still feel the mysterious need for the hand/eye relationship of moving a pen over paper? Sansom encourages his own students to handwrite their notes because that way “they put more of themselves into it”. Notebooks kept this way over several months are, he writes, “a total joy”.
Sansom’s book is full of useful facts and intriguing asides, but it reads like a narrative, an adventure story.
Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting (and Why It Still Matters) is an almost complementary story and an equally fascinating read.
I was brought up in a small country grammar school in England that took some trouble in the 1940s and 50s to encourage a certain basic legibility in one’s penmanship. We learnt italics as well as Marion Richardson’s rounded letter-forms, and took great pride in our fountain pens and nib sizes and the possibilities of coloured ink. Handwriting seemed as close to the art department as it did to literature.
A generation later, Hensher’s experience was still the same. At primary school, “you longed to do joined-up writing, as though this somehow made you a proper person”. But today it’s “the quick movement of thumbs over a miniature keypad that’s the way most writing is done”. In the not too distant future, we’ll probably talk into a machine that writes for us.
Ten years ago, Hensher reminds us, “people kept their mobile phones in their pockets. Now they hold them permanently in their hands like small angry animals.”
He wants to show us what we’ve given up in sacrificing the immediacy of pen on paper. He outlines a potted history of handwriting, the influences of graphology, national differences – particularly the conformist methods taught in 19th-century America – and he explores a number of literary interests, particularly Charles Dickens and Marcel Proust. Handwriting, he notes, “is what registers our individuality” and is often seen “as the unwritten key to our souls”. It’s a lot to lose.
PAPER: AN ELEGY, by Ian Sansom (Fourth Estate, $29.99) ; THE MISSING INK: THE LOST ART OF HANDWRITING (AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS), by Philip Hensher (Macmillan, $44.99).
Peter Bland’s Collected Poems: 1956-2011 was released in December. Although not handwritten, this review was composed on an old-fashioned typewriter and filed on paper – Bland doesn’t do email.