Is Handwriting Obsolete?

Do you remember that era of uncertainty, back around the end of high school, when you were trying to figure out what to do with your life? Hoping that the right answer would magically appear before me, I took a test which promised a list of possible careers based on my primary and secondary traits.

For my blend of opposites (artistic and analytical), there were only two suggestions: fur designer – I think we have already established that I am probably not Cruella de Vil – and graphologist. I had to look the latter up: it means a person who practices the art of handwriting analysis.

Not the kind where you give evidence in court that the purported suicide note was written not by the lord of the manor but by the devious machinating butler (that’s graphanalysis, part of the science of Questioned Document Examination) but the fortunetelling sort, where you inspect a piece of someone’s handwriting and tell them what kind of person they are.

Jehan Georges Vibert --The Fortune Teller, private collection
Your handwriting suggests that you are credulous and easily taken in.

(Note: if you want to find out what kind of person you are, examining yourself will get you further than getting a stranger to examine your handwriting.)

I found the idea interesting, read a book or two about it, and then lost interest when I found it was considered a pseudoscience. But my interest in handwriting remained, and to this day I get irritated by people who proclaim that there’s no need to teach children to write by hand as in the future everyone will be using digital devices for everything and no-one will need to write anything by hand ever again.

Note: predicting the future is also a pseudoscience. Unless it’s either very short-range, or admitting a wide margin of error, or both. Refusing to teach children a practical skill because they might not need it is not responsible educating. That’s like abolishing driver’s ed because someone’s invented driverless cars. Yes, there are many ways in which inputting data into a digital device can replace writing things by hand. There are also many ways in which it can’t.

George Baxter- The Lover’s Letter Box
No one ever thinks of looking through a tree’s Sent folder

For example, people are more likely to remember things that they have written out by hand, because forming the letters and the words is a more interactive experience than pressing a series of keys or tapping a series of places on a screen. Paper and pen/cil are a lot more durable than an electronic device, don’t require ongoing access to electricity and don’t cost so much to produce.

They’re also a lot more flexible. If you want to do something different with your pen/cil and paper, you don’t have to wait for someone to write a program or app for you. You just do it. And while there are still language barriers, format is less of an issue. No one has ever had their love-letter returned by the postal service because their beloved’s letterbox couldn’t open that filetype.

Nor is paper subject to attacks from malware, or disappearances due to bugs in the system (although some kinds of insects do like to eat paper). Nor do you have to worry about Big Brother reading everything you write and taking notes. Nor do you have to buy a new one every five minutes because this kind of paper is totally two years ago and your pen won’t write on it any more.
Lady Blogger with Her Maid, after Vermeer
I am not a Luddite – not really. I welcome the recent suggestion that New Zealand school children should be taught to code. I think it’s an excellent idea to actually teach children to master the ways of the digital world, instead of being passive consumers. But that should be in addition to teaching them to write with their hands, not instead of. Just as radio, film and TV have not replaced books, nor e-books their physical counterparts, typing and tapping have not replaced handwriting – and until they do, it’s robbing children of a skill not to teach them how.

Of course, one can go too far the other way. I see no reason to force children to learn an elaborate cursive with letters that bear no resemblance to their usual appearance (looking at you, D’Nealian upper and lower case Zs). While a certain aesthetic quality is a bonus, the main thing is to be clearly legible. I can still remember the terror of some of my contemporaries at university on being told that if the lecturer could not decipher their exam papers, they would be failed.

Some might argue that the natural solution is to allow everyone to write their exams on a computer, but that massively increases the opportunities for cheating, and the corresponding efforts to prevent it. And what if some innocent student is busily typing away and the power goes out? Or the connection fails? Or a glitch destroys all their work?


Pen and paper are one kind of technology; digital devices are another. As is so often the case, the wisest course (it seems to me) is not to blindly promote one technology and deride or ignore the other, but to use each in the ways that it best suits, thus getting the best of both worlds in the strengths of each. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

Look What the Cat Dragged In

Imagine, if you will, a cat show like no other: a gathering of cats across time and space to determine which of them has made the most remarkable contribution to my house in Things Brought In.
Motto: Weirder, Wilder, Wigglier.

First up, my first-ever cat, a grey tabby named Sixty-Cola (for reasons which I will not go into). She was a very productive hunter – rats, geckos, and on one memorable occasion, a almond-smelling cockroach which made her foam at the mouth.

Result: DQ for styrofoam. (Cats should not eat styrofoam, it makes them vomit.)

Rough nightNext in the rankings, the plain grey cat Nina, probably best remembered for giving me my facial scar. I don’t remember her being much of a hunter, although she did once bring in a live blackbird.

Result: Dishonourable Mention for fleeing the house in terror when the blackbird got away from her.

Next up, Baggy (short for Bagheera), the black-and-white only child of the aforementioned Sixty-Cola. A talented hunter. As well as rats, geckos and the like, she also caught fruitbats (don’t ask me how), and a cricket which, when she let it go to play with it, jumped clear over the six-foot wall dividers and was lost to her forever. She was a great one for playing with her food. I shall always remember the night I woke to find her trying to persuade a headless bandicoot into bed with me.

Result: Winner, Most Dangerous category, for the Papuan Black snake she brought in one night, a night which will remain seared on my memory in perpetuity. (I scaled a bookshelf in an impressive six-foot standing jump. My mother thoughtfully informed me that snakes can climb.)

HuntedRaskol is one of our current cats, a somewhat fluffy tortoiseshell-and-white. Ever a great fighter, she didn’t go in for hunting much until she had kittens. Being an intelligent cat, she realized fairly soon that her humans didn’t go in much for mice and birds, and tried to bring us things we might be more interested in.

First it was sausages and chips (as in pommes frites). Then she went through a baked-goods phase: pieces of gnawed bread, mouldy crumpets, half a chocolate muffin. Then came the tennis ball phase, during which she built up a considerable collection, some of them clearly stolen from neighbourhood dogs. There was also a kiwifruit, but we think she may have mistaken it for a tennis ball.

Side note: the brown furry fruit is not a kiwi. This is a kiwi:
Round, brown and feathery: kiwi. Round, brown and furry: kiwifruit. Simple.

Returning, however, to the array of items brought in by Raskol – whose name, aptly, means ‘highwayman’ or ‘thief’ in Tok Pisin. After amassing a hoard of some two dozen tennis balls, she moved on to paper and card. Junk mail, recycling, something washed up in the nearby stream – didn’t matter what it was, she’d drag it home for us, or for the family next door, who assumed it was the fault of the wind until they caught her in the act. This phase, unfortunately, appears to be ongoing. (Get your human some paper. Humans love paper…)

Her pièce de résistance, however, was the skin of an entire ham which she dragged through the cat-flap one Christmas morning. (Still don’t know whose it was. If it was yours, I apologize. Let us both be thankful the ham itself was too big for her to lift.) It was huge, particularly considering she’s only about the size of a ham herself.
Result: Winner, Most Variety category. PB in weight lifting.

rosemary & marmalade glazed ham
Finally, we come to Boromir, a rather dapper ginger-and-white, son of the felonious Raskol. His late kittenhood coincided with a bumper-year for cicadas, and for a while it was not possible to step into our hall without the crunch of empty cicada cases under one’s feet.

One night, home alone but for the cats, I heard what sounded like a circling B-52 going round the house amid the clatter of cicadas. I rushed to the windows in a failed attempt to spot this emperor among cicadas, and Boromir rushed out through the cat-flap. You guessed it. Seeing my interest in this gigantic insect, he very thoughtfully went and got it for me. He must have been confused by the way in which I rushed into the bedroom and slammed the door behind me. Hadn’t I seen what he’d brought me? Why had I left it behind? But stay! There was a way around this awkward social impasse. Thinking quickly, he shunted the still live (and by now quite testy) cicada through the gap under the bedroom door, trapping me in my room with this monster beast between me and the door.

cat-323262_640Let us draw the curtain of charity over my response, and move on to consider some of the other things Boromir has brought home over the years. Now that I look back, I can see that he has always been one for grabbing the attention. There was the mouse left under the fridge (takes a while to get the humans’ attention, but cannot be ignored thereafter), the mouse in the slipper (something didn’t feel right when I stood up) and the weta (mercifully legless) in my shoe. There was the mouse which he caught by firing himself across the room with lethal force – using my stomach as a launch pad as I lay sleeping.

But his true nature, that of an unashamed glory-hound, did not become clear to me until this week. The first post in this week’s series went up on Monday. On Tuesday night, Boromir brought in no fewer than three mice. We were duly impressed (although we might have been more impressed if he didn’t keep waking us up by yowling about each individual mouse as he brought it up the stairs).

And then on Wednesday night, he brought in four mice, one after the other. I don’t know where he’s getting them. I’ve never seen a mouse in this house that wasn’t either in a cat’s mouth, or in a clearly post-cat condition (i.e. dead). But there it is. Seven mice in about thirty hours, and he ate four of them in their entirety (as well as two dinners). I’m surprised he can still walk without tripping over his own stomach.

Result: Winner, Bulk category. Mice in one night, 4; PB, HR [Personal Best, Household Record]

And as for Best in Show – well, that’s a People’s Choice Award. What do you think?
To entertain you while the votes are counted, may I suggest this cat’s-eye view of assorted prey: I Eat You by Misha (amanuensis, Christina Anne Hawthorne).