Andrew Marr began his Start the Week programme yesterday with a very interesting, but rhetorical, question: would you recognise your friends' handwriting?
It was certainly a challenge: I don't even recognise my own handwriting these days, so rarely do I put pen to paper. And I can't remember receiving anything other than an electronic communication from a friend: I'm too old for birthday cards and, anyway, it's the text that counts. Does any of this matter?
I suspect that the audience for a Radio 4 programme on a Monday morning is at the senior end of the age range, so a discussion on the disappearance of handwriting from our lives is certain to invoke a wistful response, leaving the listener to ponder how the march of technology has swept before it some of the habits and courtesies of old. I share some of these feelings, and I defy anyone not to find the receipt of a handwritten thank-you letter more affecting than a text, however many kisses or smiley faces are attached.
And the author Philip Hensher, on the programme to discuss his new book about the lost art of handwriting, made an irrefutable point about the permanence of thoughts expressed on paper, explaining that he had recently come across a letter that his sister had written him 32 years ago. Of course, a text would not have such longevity, but it was the emotional connection to a simple note that he found most powerful.
"It was full of her personality," he said. But, for someone who earns his living with the written word, I find it hard to get worked up about the gradual falling out of fashion of one method of communication, particularly as more immediate, and arguably more efffective, forms have emerged.
In any case, I think that we will always have a need, and desire, to write things by hand.
People once said that the invention of the camera would mean the end of portrait painting. They said that TV would kill cinema. And that no one would read a book any more. It all boils down to the question of format or genre.
We don't care whether the music we're hearing comes from a radio, a CD player or a computer. The music is the genre, and the format is irrelevant. But there is a qualitative difference in the experience between reading something on screen and seeing the exact same words handwritten on vellum paper.
That's because the stylistic criteria attached to putting thoughts, feelings, ideas down on paper turns it into a genre, which will have an enduring appeal.
For instance, a letter has more resonance than a text, and even a generation for whom LOL is infinitely preferable to "yours sincerely" knows that.
Here's the rub, though. I am very keen on texting, but I really love getting a letter. I suspect I'm not alone in this, which is why we all text and never commit our thoughts to paper. So I've decided to send my friends the occasional letter. The trouble is that I only know their email addresses.