It is very difficult to imagine, in this age of word-processing, that there was a time when people wrote anything and everything by hand. Yet it is so. All the great works of Western thought—from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Locke to Einstein—were formulated by putting a hand-held stylus to parchment or, later, to paper. The keyword here is ‘formulated,’ because the act of writing is the act of thinking. We cannot think everything out in the mind and then simply copy it down in written form. Without the act of writing, thoughts remain unformed and incomplete. So—as Marshall McLuhan noted—the way we write is part of the content of what we write—“the medium is the message” or at least a part of it.
This is a reality shaped by nuance. After all, is not the word ‘air” the same in meaning regardless of whether it is written by hand or word-processor or, for that matter, set in lead type on a linotype press or on a modern digital press and printed on a book page? Yes, air means air, in whatever medium it appears. If all we are interested in is getting the conventional meaning of a word, it matters little how it appears to us, and we can believe that nothing of consequence is lost in the translation from handwriting to printing. If we consider, though, how different typefaces affect the meaning of a word, say, AIR instead of air, we have to grant that the meaning is subtly affected by the form in which it appears, especially in relation to its context. If that is the case, then the handwritten word is subtly different from the typeset word—perhaps because of the imprint of the author’s personality or, even more subtly, the effect of different shapes or colors on our understanding of the precise meanings of words.
As we know, though, the impulse of Western civilization is towards standardization, in the same spirit as industrialization, mass-production, and consumerist conformity, which through franchises and global advertising, presents the same products to people everywhere, however different they may be or aspire to be. Their acceptance of (buying and living with) the product, or the meaning of the word (read in standardized, typeset form) enforces a homogeneity of understanding, a social bond that transcends individual idiosyncrasies in favor of commonality and community. The examples given below emphasize the difficulty of reading the handwritten, idiosyncratic form of text and indeed cry out for a common, accessible form that we can share and discuss and in some practical, cultural way, use.
Still, we must wonder, what do we lose in the process of homogenization and standardization? Is it anything important for us to know, to experience? Also, in this age of digitalization, which can present us with the idiosyncratic as easily as the standardized and the mass-produced, do we any more need to sacrifice the personal nuance to achieve accessibility and common clarity? Can we not have both?
(below) The three beginning manuscript pages, with multiple corrections by the author, of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:
For the other sixty-six pages of A Christmas Carol, visit this website.
(below) A manuscript page of Albert Einstein’s paper on The General Theory of Relativity, with corrections by the author:
(below) Typescript by T. S. Eliot of a manuscript page of his poem The Wasteland, with critical comments by Ezra Pound requested by Eliot:
(below) Typeset version of the above manuscript page, including Pound’s comments:
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- August 22, 2010 / 11:09 pm
- Lebbeus Woods