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Six hundred sixty-six words…


…more or less

Ten years of blogging have revealed one unanticipated thing about my writing: the predictable length of a piece here is likely 600 to 700 words. And if that is, indeed, the limit of my attention span or of the complexity of thought I might entertain in the moment, the revelation has come none too soon. No wonder I seem unable to write a book. Despite the number of book-length topics in my research agenda, it’s hard to visualize one of them treated in a hundred chapters of six hundred sixty-six words apiece.

Another characteristic concerns writing itself, by which I mean the physical act of putting words on paper. I write in that sense, but my students — most of them; surely there must be exceptions — operate on the presumption that “cursive” means swearing. So it was with great interest that I ran across an article about the sad state of written communication today and why it may be more important than you imagine.

“The benefits of writing by hand, and doing so from a young age, are fundamental: improved and sustained development in social skills, hand-eye coordination, long-term memory.” —Ted Scheinman

In “Hand-wringing over Handwriting” Scheinman does far more than bemoan the disappearance of cursive writing from our schools — at least the public variety; parochial and other private schools may be another matter — for there is a documentable connection between writing and cognitive skills. It turns out using a pencil is like learning how to use any other tool: “Using our hands requires the development of particular areas of the brain” and the those areas learn through the mechanism of manipulation, especially repetitive — that is, information enters our brain by means other than seeing and hearing; it travels up your arm. Taking notes during a lecture, for example, imprints our recollection of what has been said far more durably than by listening alone. If you don’t go to Scheinman’s article itself, consider this hasty distillation.

  • Brain development has close coördination with manual dexterity.
  • Cursive note-taking yields a more fluid and cohesive thought process; whereas “transcrib[ing] lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in [our] own words is detrimental to learning.”
  • Children who write by hand are better able to generate ideas and retain information.

A particular problem for graduate students in history arises from this inability to read cursive—of any period or place. Let me give you an example.

Between 1908 and about 1910, the mayor of Williston, North Dakota was Joseph Jackson, who, with his wife Julia, had come during the Second Dakota Boom. I’m not sure what Jackson’s “day job” may have been; my interest arose from the house they built: one of the state’s finer examples of the Arts & Crafts style, designed by Chicago architect Lawrence Buck and built about 1909. The Jacksons had come from Madison, Wisconsin, where the family were well established and influential. [There’s an odd connection with Frank Lloyd Wright and the Monona Terrace Civic Center project, but that can wait for another time and context.]

I knew the Jackson house was a Buck design and I suspected their connection with him had come via the Ladies Home Journal, but was that the only link? Fortunate for me, Julia Jackson was her mother’s daughter; she wrote her mother in Madison at least once, sometimes twice a day. And in a format that I had associated with the 18th century.

To save paper, Julia’s letters were written on both sides and in both directions, that is, she wrote across the paper and then rotated it 90°, then turned the paper over and repeated. Because pen and ink a century ago bled through the paper, anyone reading her letters — or trying to — would be reading four lines simultaneously: backwards, forwards, and crosswise. An hour in the reading room of the state’s historical society brought on a headache like I have never had (without benefit of alcohol). Now compound that with 19th century cursive penmanship and you appreciate the problem. One of Scheinman’s sources claims this is already an issue in graduate studies.

This is not one of Julia Jackson’s letters but you get the idea, though it doesn’t have ink bleeding through from the reverse.

Ironically, the computer software that creates an architectural drawing will be unable to read it in ten years or less. At least the cursive script phenomenon has taken a century to evolve.

Oh, and I just broke the 700 barrier.


PS: Then there is the matter of Swiss-German poet Robert Walser, whose early 20th century microscript was considered unreadable until recently. Being in German doesn’t help.

walser microscript.jpg

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