Philip Hensher: Status update - the writing is on the wall for pen and ink

Handwriting is so bound in with our humanity that to lose it would be to lose many valuable things

Share

The French company Bic makes three things: razors, cigarette lighters and its first and most famous line, ballpoint pens. It produces razors in different versions for men and women without anyone objecting. So – it concluded – why not produce a ballpoint pen specifically for women? The product, "designed to fit comfortably in a woman's hand", comes in an "attractive barrel design available in pink and purple". The product was less successful among customers than might be hoped, and commentators on the internet made merry with the company's idea of what women want from a pen. "Thank goodness someone has finally noticed that, for years, women have struggled with pen usage," one Amazon reviewer wrote. "What is the point of being allowed to vote, when ordinary pens have been just far too uncomfortable and downright heavy, to grasp in our teeny, tiny, porcelain hands?"

Bic is rather a fascinating company. Its flagship product, the Bic Cristal ballpoint pen, was produced after Baron Marcel Bich bought the European patent from its inventor, Laszlo Biro, in the late 1940s. The Bic Cristal (which you're not supposed to call a biro) brought the cost of a ballpoint pen down from £2 15s in 1946 to a tiny sum. The only changes that have been made to the pen since 1950 are the introduction of a hole in the cap in 1990, to guard against suffocation and, from 1961, the ball has been made from tungsten carbide. Also unchanging is the cost, amazingly; the current price on Amazon of £7.74 for 50 is less, in cash terms, than it cost in the early 1960s. In 1970, six million pens were sold daily; by 2005, 100 billion pens had been sold worldwide.

What an amazing object it is! But are we in the very last days of pen and ink? Is it not just the idea of pens for women that people are regarding with ridicule and amusement, but the idea of pens altogether? An online stationer, Docmail, commissioned a survey in June about the last time any of us wrote something by hand. It discovered that the average time since an adult wrote anything at all by hand was 41 days. One in three people surveyed said that they hadn't written anything by hand for at least six months. Two out of three said that the last thing they wrote was for their eyes only – a hastily scribbled note, a shopping list or a reminder.

What has replaced this? The text message, the email, the tweet, the typed Facebook update. The love letter, the postcard, the casual note left for friend, partner, children, parents, the handwritten diary are all much rarer than they were. I can't remember the last time I saw a student essay that had been written by hand, or got a letter by hand – a very few friends send postcards from holiday, or to say thank you for something. But mostly we use keyboards nowadays, even for the most intimate communications.

I've written a book about what handwriting means, called The Missing Ink, published next month. I started to wonder what we are going to lose when it disappears altogether from our lives, when pens for women, pens for men, pens for anyone start to become curious objects, rarely to be used. Writing the book, I talked to a number of people, just asking them what they felt about their handwriting. It was startling how many people started by saying they were "ashamed" of their handwriting. No one says they're ashamed of their wardrobe, or their conversation, or their gait. It is as if handwriting offers a direct path into someone's humanity.

For hundreds of years, observers have tried to codify the sense we have that a person's handwriting offers a way into a personality. It's an eccentric pseudo-science that doesn't stand up to close analysis. But surely, when we see the way a human being writes with a pen on paper, we know something more about him or her.

It seems absurd that a pen manufacturer would find it necessary to make a pen specifically for women. But we've all had the experience of seeing handwriting which we assume, without deep analysis, to be that of a woman, or that of a man. Writing by hand is personal, and can reveal a lot about our status, our age, sex, whether we are withdrawn or outgoing, confident or shy.

Handwriting is taught very little in schools these days. Many opponents of it argue that everything is going to be done on keyboards and pads in the future, so what's the point? It is required in schools of only five states of the United States, for instance.

There's no question that we are going to move ever more towards typing and texting. But handwriting is so bound in with our humanity that to lose it would be to lose any number of humane, valuable things. Do we really want to live in a world where love letters are always typed? Where the postcard from holiday is entirely replaced by the Facebook update? Not a communication from X to Y, with that special formation of an "e" that Y has always liked about X's writing, but something that looks just like any other communication, which can be copied and pasted without any consideration. To tell the truth, these days, X might not even know what his old friend Y's handwriting looks like.

The Bic company's pen for ladies has been mocked as antediluvian, not just in its idea of a target market, but as a technology. These days, everyone uses a laptop to write. In the world of laptop typing, there is no old or young, male or female, educated or simple, confident or quiet. You type a "p" and there it is, the same as anyone else's "p". But a sense of humanity's rich variety and complexity, expressed through ink on paper, is fast disappearing.

We make an effort to do other slow activities, because we think it's good for us – we cook at length and we go for walks in the country. Are we going to start deliberately writing by hand for the same reason? Or are we just going to watch this wonderful element of our individuality, our humanity, disappear for ever?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home