The Barbarous Relic
In an age of thumb-typing, the end of penmanship


Kevin D. Williamson

Thus passed the Great Handwriting Crisis of 1984. When President Reagan asked that year if I was better off today than I was four years ago, I had the pristine report card to prove it.

After I learned to type properly, handwriting became a largely theoretical concern. Typing was, after all, the family profession. My mother was a secretary and a fearsome typist, well over 100 words per minute. This was especially remarkable given the fact that her right hand and arm were partly paralyzed. Always susceptible to infections, my mother had suffered the tiniest of scratches from her pet poodle, Pepe, and the resulting infection very nearly cost her her right arm. There was a horrific hospitalization, skin grafts, and more, after which she could neither quite open her right hand nor quite close it into a fist, though I must have made her want to on many occasions. (She never really learned. Some years later I witnessed her feeding a bear — as in a wild bear from the woods — gingersnaps out of her hand. If I had nearly lost my arm to a poodle scratch, it would never have occurred to me to feed gingersnaps to a 500-pound wild beast whose natural diet does not include gingersnaps but does include the occasional arm. But she loved animals.) With her fully functional left hand and graphospasmic right one, she flailed away at several generations’ worth of typewriters, and later computers, with terrible energy. She looked a little like a drunken virtuoso at the piano, her right hand clawing out some wild fantasia, her left hand keeping up a precise counterpoint. She also had the remarkable gift of being able to tear through a document, typing it perfectly, and afterward having no idea what the document said — a typist of pure technique and focus. I once brought home what I thought was an impressive score on a typing test, maybe 70 words a minute, and she looked at me as if she was wondering whether I would ever amount to anything.

A few years ago, I found myself in a classroom with those perfective-cursive charts that adorned the walls of elementary-school classrooms in the 1980s, and I discovered, to my surprise, that I could execute perfect cursive — albeit a schoolkid’s cursive — if I concentrated and wrote at the rate of about one letter every five seconds. It became a subconscious tic. Other people sometimes doodle in meetings; my version of that is writing very precise cursive, sometimes nonsense words, sometimes words that are simply enjoyable to write in cursive, the prince of which is “Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg,” my old address on New Delhi’s version of Fleet Street.

At the Whole Foods, though, my signature is a sort of slash that approximates more the hurry I am in or imagine myself to be in than the letters in my name.

Why do we bother to sign for things at all, though? Clerks sometimes ask me to see my credit card, and then ask to see my identification when they notice the card is not signed. What if it had been signed? What, exactly, would that tell the people at Barnes & Noble, who have no idea what my signature looks like? As a technology, the signature is long past its time of effectiveness. If I make a questionable purchase on my credit card — and God and American Express know I do — I get a text message inquiring whether I have just spent $X at shop X. I occasionally even get a telephone call inquiring whether I have really and truly just made some purchase that is so irresponsible that the suspicious algorithms that run silently beneath the information architecture of the retail world flag it, and some exasperated call-center person in some low-rent jurisdiction has to call me up and ask about my new sneakers. They always sound a little disappointed in me.

Signing for a purchase is, I suppose, intended to be a way to prove that you really did make the purchase, in case you later regret it and claim that it was somebody else using your credit card. That seems to me redundant in an age of omnipresent cameras. It is more of a ritual: A man’s word is his bond and a deal is done when you sign on the line that is dotted, as David Mamet says. “That is your pound-and-a-half of grilled salmon, Mr. Williamson — and here’s the signature that proves it!” You know what would happen if I should try to beat the Whole Foods bill for my weekly ration of Stumptown Cold Brew coffee (which comes in little brown bottles that look rather like the ones that Red Stripe beer comes in and consistently pique the interest of MTA police officers during my morning commute)? There would be 10,000 pictures and videos of me making the buy: Video of me coming into the store, video of me pretending to think seriously about buying organic Boston bibb lettuce, glossy color photographs of me clicking “ACCEPT” with that weird little stylus at the register, a closed-circuit television feed of me cracking open a bottle of coffee for the walk home, time-stamped footage of me jaywalking across Greenwich Street. Whatever the powers that be wanted to charge me with, there’d be ample photographic evidence for their case.

And God only knows how many signatures would be involved in dealing with that.

Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.