At the British Library, Writing Is a Work of Art

The last time handwriting enthusiasts had this much fun was probably back in 2010, when Lindsay Lohan’s unexpectedly tidy courtroom notes went viral. So far, this past year has brought Donald Trump scrawling “nice” on a map that showed the Golan Heights as part of Israel; an Ohio law encouraging the return of cursive; and the Duchess of Sussex doing calligraphy at a nursing home. (She used to work in a stationery shop and once told Esquire that she would wear a tube sock over her hand to avoid getting oils on her correspondence.) In London, the British Library is putting on an exhibition called “Writing: Making Your Mark.” There is plenty of handwriting (a papal indulgence from 1455, Joyce’s color-coded “Ulysses” drafts), but the show also covers printing, typing, computing, and tattooing. Practically the only things missing are the three scribbled wills that were found, earlier this year, in a cupboard and under couch cushions in Aretha Franklin’s house. “We felt like we couldn’t just say, ‘This is Samaritan writing,’ ” Michael Erdman, one of the show’s curators, explained the other day. “Especially in the age of the Internet, that’s just called a Google search. At a time when people might no longer think writing is necessary, we’re introducing them to all it involves.”

Erdman began a tour of the show with a Mayan limestone stela from 647 A.D. It seemed like a good time to ask how the professionals define “writing.” Erdman said, “Writing is a graphical representation of speech.” In traditional scholarship, alphabetical scripts are often considered more advanced than ideographic ones. “We don’t espouse the hierarchy, but really the area where you have a gray zone is when you look at Mesoamerica,” he said. Mayan writing consists of logograms (signs representing whole words; for example, a jaguar head for “jaguar”) and syllabograms (signs representing syllables; “ka” + “ka” + “u” = cacao). The script was meant to be read in a zigzag fashion, from left to right and top to bottom. A few years ago, after a visit to Teotihuacán, the members of the band Iron Maiden got a scholar to translate their song titles into a Mayan language called Yucatec and had the hieroglyphs printed on the tail fin of their 747.

Erdman moved on to a Chinese oracle bone, and then to a little wooden board that, in ancient Egypt, had served as a sort of toe tag for a mummy. Writing, Erdman said, developed in order to name things, to count things, and to communicate in the afterlife. A shabti figurine, for example, was inscribed with a list of chores for the servants of the dead.

“Try not to bring up feudalism with my dad tonight.”
“Try not to bring up feudalism with my dad tonight.”

About forty different writing systems were on display in the gallery. One of the newest was developed by the Vai people of Liberia, in 1832. There were anonymous writers: a landowner from Ravenna, wealthy but illiterate, used a symbol that looked like a star inside a wagon wheel to sign a nine-foot-long papyrus real-estate deed. Erdman pointed out the Mainz Psalter, the second book in the West that was printed using movable type, and said, “Printing didn’t kill handwriting. Printing wanted to mimic handwriting. Scribes could do full color.” Illuminating a manuscript seems significantly easier than operating a Double Pigeon, a Chinese typewriter that required the typist to recognize two thousand different metal character blocks.

The English alphabet used to have five more letters, including “thorn,” which represented a “th”-like sound and fell out of favor when printers such as William Caxton (“The Canterbury Tales”) started leaving it out. Erdman doesn’t think that handwriting will ever disappear; there’s too much the hand can do that the keyboard can’t.

Nearby, an Apple IIe computer was on display. “It started with shadow—removing light to create writing, like with carving,” Erdman said. “Now we’re writing with light.

All Rights Reserved for Lauren Collins

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