As I entered my local library, I walked past a sign that read, “Quiet corner, slow reading in process.” I have been seeing announcements about this on various Internet threads around town: a return to placing books in hands. A device free zone. A place for the whispery rustle of turning pages. A place to curl up with a good book. A life-long habit for me—being rehabitualized in the digital age.
I peeked in to see a mixed group of grey heads, teen heads, and a girl of about ten reading. Just reading. In the knick of techno-e-time the library is hosting a place to remember, learn, and enjoy the art of handling paper pages. Like many things these days that seem about to disappear, some group is grabbing treasured human experience back from the brink of disuse.
I turn left into the community room. I am carrying my ever-present journal and a fountain pen into a meeting with Kindles, iPads, and smart-phones spread out on the table. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book about my relationship to journal writing. It was titled, Life’s Companion—and it’s a most accurate description of how writing sidles up to the busy edge of my life and invites me into the slow zone.
Volume by volume, now stored in boxes at the back of my closet and under my desk, and filling the bottom row of my corner bookshelf, I accumulate uncountable pages of handwritten heartfelt reflection, inquiry, lament, and celebration. I have favorite pens and brands of journals that support my attachment to writing.
What erodes this attachment is the lure of the cursor… the demands of typing, typing, typing that that fill modern business and create modern busyness. I can’t imagine how I would construct my workday or personal life if I could not type. Typing has become essential to our communication patterns, a core skill. Little children, barely able to recite the alphabet, are learning to type it.
Typing seems to carry the day, but as someone who has been both writing and typing for sixty years, I know they are not the same activity. I know that handwriting and typing stimulate different thought processes. My journal is a handwritten document, and it has taught me to trust slow writing, to experience writing as a form of meditation. When writing professionally, I often warm up my creative flow by writing first by hand and then very carefully switching to the keyboard. Carefully, because the switch from pen to keyboard can rattle a line of thought right out of my mind. It’s a delicate maneuver. I breathe into it. I move as though I have a hot cup of tea in hand—don’t spill the inspiration. (And don’t-don’t-don’t look at e-mails or start shopping for a new journal, pen, or whatever!)
Over the years, discussion between cursive or cursor has been passionately debated in hundreds of my journal and memoir writing seminars: write or type; type or write? Finally, neurologists and psychologists have joined the writers’ debate.
Journalist Maria Konnikova, a student of Harvard’s Stephen Pinker, raised the question in the New York Times in June 2014, “Does handwriting matter?” She sites several interesting studies, that are no surprise to me. Here are two quotes from her piece that seem to be the crux of the matter:
“New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep.
Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.
“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.” And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.””
“A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, lent support to that view. Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again. The researchers found that the initial duplication process mattered a great deal. When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex. By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.”
I don’t know where the fusiform gyrus is in my brain, but I know it’s been activated since I was in first grade—and that my life is a study in the power of the hand to the page, and the power of the fingertips to the keys. My point is to caution the larger “us” from removing something so foundational as writing by hand just because it seems temporarily “not modern” or not necessary. The brain has been evolving for basic literacy for thousands of years, and it knows what it is doing in a way that developers of the digital keyboard do not.
Shall we not protect this heritage? Shall we not bend lovingly over the shoulders of our children and grandchildren and help them hold the pen as well as help them find the letter on the Qwerty board?
Besides…. If the coming generations don’t learn to write and read cursive…who is going to peruse all the millions and millions of journals, letters, and old fashioned first drafts for the bits of encoded genius streaming out of our activated fusiform gyruses?