It's all about the written word...

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing for Culture

I was talking to my son-in-law, a filmmaker and teacher at a private boys’ school. We were discussing the trials and challenges of trying to teach teen-age boys anything, never mind the subtleties and details of the history of filmmaking, which is part of his curriculum. He was telling me how the kids frequently question their need to know the topic and how his response is always the same: “Like literature or music or art, film is an important part of our culture.” And I got to thinking about pens, of course.

I’m usually taken aback when people say they have no interest in handwriting—theirs or anyone else’s—or the implements used to write. To many, pens and writing seem an anachronistic nuisance in today’s world of computers, hand-held communication devices, and the like. I agree that we should avail ourselves of all the great technology around us. But to go back to filmmaking for just a moment, Avatar would probably never have been made were it not for King Kong.  It’s all part of our evolution of ideas and practices, I believe. But is it appropriate to say that the pen is the very distant and direct cousin of the computer? Probably not, other than the fact that they are both used to formulate and communicate. Their evolutionary branches are too far apart. But still, I think it’s important not to let one flourish at the huge expense of the other, since, to quote my son-in-law, each is an important part of our culture.

I recently read that the decline in penmanship skills is indeed a sorry state of affairs, since handwriting forces our brain to react in a very specific and positive way. But equally important is the fact that if you can’t write in longhand, you probably can’t read it either, which makes a vast store of knowledge unavailable. Old manuscripts, famous documents and the like will need to be deciphered like an unfamiliar language that is, strangely, our own. 

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