The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting: An Interview with Anne Trubek

Anne Trubek and I hang out in some of the same places online. Or perhaps more accurately, I lurk in some of the online places that Anne Trubek has created for people who are interested in writing about intelligent stuff for a non-academic audience. She is not only a creative writer, but an innovative creator of spaces in which writing, and talking about writing happens.  When I saw that her new book appeared on the list of September books to review for Shelf Awareness for Readers, I was quick to put up my virtual hand and say “pick me!”

I was not disappointed.  And I’m pleased to be able to offer you a chance to hear what Anne has to say about the book.

Before we get to the interview, a little bit about the book:

In The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, Anne Trubek explores the development of handwriting—physical and cultural—from clay tablets and cuneiform in ancient Mesopotamia to handwriting’s role in the world of digital communication.

Trubek describes changes in the technology of handwriting. (Making a quill pen is more complicated than you may realize.) More importantly, she considers the political and social implications inherent in who learned to write, what they recorded, and the scripts they used. She traces the relatively late rise of the idea that a person’s handwriting is a unique production, and ties the idea that handwriting is a reflection of personality to psuedosciences such as phrenology and eugenics.

Some of the most interesting sections of the book arise from the recurring fear the innovations in handwriting and technologies such as the printing press and the typewriter that threatened to replace it, would prove detrimental to the intellectual abilities of future generations would embraced them. Handwriting itself was the target of impassioned attacks by Socrates and his followers, who believed the written word would destroy not only the ability to remember but the ability to think complex thoughts.

Trubek never loses sight of the fact that handwriting is a controversial subject today. Throughout the book, she offers amusing and insightful comparisons between past and present, preparing the reader for a final discussion of the future of handwriting. The result is a light-handed and thoughtful account of a complicated subject.


And now, please welcome Anne Trubek:

You bracket your history of handwriting with the controversies that surround teaching handwriting today.       Is that where the book began for you or did something else inspire you to write about handwriting?

Yes and no. I did start writing about handwriting when my son was in elementary school and his handwriting was causing him problems in school. But I was then also researching and writing about book history, so it synced with an area I was already working on. But most importantly I wanted this book to be for parents and educators who are confused and anxious about changes happening with writing—to give them a longer lens through which to view them, and to alley their fears.

One thing that fascinated me about your book was the way the function of handwriting as a marker of social status shifted over time. Can you tell us a something about the issues involved?

Isn’t that fascinating? One thing that I was interested in is that literacy levels fluctuate across time and cultures. It is astounding how few Egyptians learned to write–.3 percent according to some estimates. And in the 18th and early 19th century, some American women were taught to read but not to write.

Handwriting serves as a marker of social status because it reflects literacy rates, of course. But then there are more gradations. For most of Western history, the higher your status, the more likely you were not to write—you had people take dictation for you. In 19th century Britain, there rose an astounding number of different scripts that people used for specialized purposes—so if you wrote in one it would mark you as upper class, or as professional class, or as a woman.

Americans still have some ways of judging people’s status by their handwriting: consider the assumption you might make of someone whose handwriting is very large, neat, and rounded, with the I’s having circles above them instead of dots—do you think relatively uneducated woman, perhaps? Now compare that with someone whose handwriting is small but almost illegible—a male doctor or lawyer, perhaps?

You set your history of handwriting in the larger context of the history of what I guess I’d call “communication technology”. (Is there a better term for this?) What innovation in the way we produce the written word most changed the nature and use of handwriting?

Wow what a great question! And tough to answer. Maybe papyrus? In Sumeria, people wrote on clay. In Greece and Rome, they wrote on clay as well (as well as stone), but they also imported Egyptian papyrus and the book grows out of that. More recently, the shift from quill pen to fountain pen (and then ball point) definitely sped things up! I should add here I’m only considering Western innovations.

You describe a number of different scripts with different purposes. Do you have a favorite?

I love uncials. And I love that it was all majuscule or upper-case letters. IT WAS LIKE THIS. (there weren’t spaces between words either so ITWASLIKETHIS. Then they invented half-uncials, which are all lower-case, or miniscule. And you never combined the two!

In the interest of giving equal time to both sides of the handwriting controversy: Do you have a favorite font?

I like myself a copperplate font. Also Courier. But I use Times New Roman. It’s incredible how dominant Times New Roman is now. I should have bought stock! In the early days of computers we used lots of different ones—it was more playful, really. Now you show yourself a rube if you use the “wrong” font.

While I’ve got you here, could I ask you to tell my readers about Belt Magazine?

You bet! Belt Publishing is both an online magazine that publishes independent journalism about the Rust Belt and a small press. We publish books about cities like Cleveland and Detroit, and publish articles about these places online as well. I founded it three years ago to give voice to an underrepresented, fascinating region.

Is there anything else you wish I had asked you about?

No– I love your questions! Thanks so much for engaging with my book. It’s wonderful.

Anne TrubekAnne Trubek is the founder and director of Belt Publishing. She is the author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting and A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired, MIT Technology Review, Smithsonian, Slate, Salon, Belt and numerous other publications. A tenured professor at Oberlin College from 1997-2015, she currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio.







  1. Bart Ingraldi on September 14, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    You know how I feel about handwritten communication —This is a wonderful interview and now another book I need to purchase!

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