Book Review: The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek

This may come as a surprise, but a lot of people have strong feelings about handwriting. Ask a few friends, “should children be taught cursive at school?” and you’re bound to receive a variety of vigorous opinions. Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, may have learned this the hard way. In August of this year, just prior to the book’s publication, Trubek penned a New York Times op-ed piece headlined Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter, and it received over one-hundred comments and letters. Almost all of these reader responses disagreed with Trubek’s call for schools to refocus handwriting education elsewhere, and one reader even went far enough to call keyboards “offensive tools.”


In some ways Trubek’s newly released book is a 154-page extension of that NYT op-ed, but it’s more aptly characterized as a simple history book. While she eventually gets around to discussing the digital age, Trubek fills most of the book’s pages by explaining the cultural evolution of writing, from early cuneiform and hieroglyphics to the common Palmer and D’Nealian cursive fonts that most of us use today. It covers a lot of the same ground as Paper by Mark Kurlansky, though Trubek’s narrower focus makes for a much quicker read.

When Trubek gets around to discussing the future of handwriting near the end of the book, it’s a lot less controversial than I’d expected given much of the ire it has created. Her argument boils down to this: writing’s role is changing in the digital age, as it has throughout history. Just as the printing press reduced the need for scribes, computers reduce our need for handwriting. It’s simply not as critical as it once was, and perhaps the time children spend learning handwriting could be reallocated toward something more useful (like computer skills). I’m unclear whether Trubek’s argument extends to learning basic, legible print handwriting – something which still has a lot of utility – but her main contention seems to be with cursive.

Trubek goes on to discuss the benefits of handwriting that are presented by its advocates, though she largely dismisses them as being cultural arguments. However, the cultural element of cursive is, in my opinion, the best reason for including it in a school curriculum. At least for the time being, cursive is still in use, and everyone would benefit from knowing the script to some extent. Though it should be pointed out that Trubek still envisions a place for cursive, at least as an art form, a hobby, or a tool for developing fine motor skills.

Whether you agree with Trubek’s main argument or not, anybody with a passionate opinion about this topic will be fascinated by the bulk of this book. The history lesson it contains is worthwhile, and the book is short enough to complete within a few sittings. And, who knows, after finishing the book you might be inclined to write the author a handwritten note in response.

Book Review: Paper by Mark Kurlansky

Most of us spend very little time thinking about paper, but for a moment, consider its abundance in our day-to-day lives. Even for those that eschew physical books, notepads, and snail mail, it can be hard to ignore paper’s many other forms: wall paper, toilet paper, movie posters, restaurant receipts, product packaging, and billboard advertisements, to name just a handful. The stuff is everywhere, and since its invention in China around 2,000 years ago, paper has played a pivotal role in art, education, communication, and bureaucracy. In his new book Paper: Paging Through History, Mark Kurlansky chronicles the impact paper has had in our society over these many years.


Anyone familiar with Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now, the book or the PBS documentary, will be familiar with the style Kurlansky uses in Paper. Rather than dictating a straight timeline of events, Kurlansky describes the history of society with paper at its center-point. In other words, while the invention and technical development of paper is a main feature, the broader lesson is in how paper affected subjects like literacy, spoken language, science, religion, and record-keeping throughout the millennia.

Paper begins with the invention of written language and the use of pre-paper products (such as papyrus, wax tablets, and parchment), as well as a bit of speculation paper’s origins. It then follows the trail of paper from the East, through the Middle East , and into Europe and North America. Along the way the process has changed, new uses for the product were found, and paper-making became a large-scale industry. You might be surprised, but it’s a long journey from manually-produced paper, made primarily from discarded rags, to the machine-produced paper, made primarily from farmed wood-chips. Also included is a discussion of the future of paper in our digital world, the resurgence of artisanal paper, and the environmental impact of the mass-production in paper.

Overall, the style might be a bit on the dry side for some readers. The book isn’t written in the fun, light style of non-fiction authors like Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell. But for those interested in a bit of history, much of it will be truly fascinating. Consider the following question: if paper was invented in China, why did the printed book industry take hold in Europe first? If that’s the sort of thing that makes you scratch your chin, then I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy of Paper.