Getting Real

I had to admit it: I was never going to read all the issues of the London Review of Books that were sitting in two tall stacks on my office floor. They’d been there for months, and some of the covers had started curling up with age. I went through and clipped only the essays and reviews that interested me the most, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been making my way through that stack—also a large one—quite happily. I thought I’d share a few of the gems with you here.

  • I read “I’m an Intelligence,” a long-form review by Joanna Biggs of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. I: 1940-56 and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. II: 1956-63, edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil. The essay looks at the last years of Plath’s life (and briefly and very poignantly but amusingly imagines what her life might have looked like, had it lasted a lot longer). Because of this, it is largely about Plath’s relationship with her dreadful husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and her own mental health and sense of self. It’s also about the varying ways we portray ourselves (or hide ourselves) in communications with other people. ‘Ted may be a genius,’ Plath wrote to her mother in 1962 or ’63, just a few months before her death, ‘but I’m an intelligence.’
  • I read art historian Eleanor Nairne’s short essay about Keith Haring, published last year on the occasion of the first large-scale exhibition of his work in the UK. Haring is an artist I have a lot of affection for and, along with the many other New York street artists of his era, a real fascination with. In Nairne’s piece I learned about an aspect of his graffiti art that I didn’t know: In New York in the early 80s, when a subway ad was taken down it was temporary replaced with black paper, and Haring used these as canvases for his chalk drawings. He made 5,000 of them between 1980 and 1985 and was arrested several times for doing it. 
Tseng Kwong Chi photo of Keith Haring
  • I read LRB editor Andrew O’Hagan’s essay, in an installment of the paper’s Diary (usually my favorite section), about funerals, which I clipped because the first sentence was about the poet Philip Larkin. It ended up being not about Larkin’s poetry but his funeral, as well as the funerals of a few other poets and O’Hagan’s own father: “When I read it now, I see his order of service was a publication chiefly for people who hardly knew him, and when all’s said and done, that’s fine, isn’t it, even appropriate, if what mattered to the person in question was cultivating the admiration of strangers? A lie can confirm a truth.”
  • I’ve read two pieces about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One was a dense, poetic little piece about the changing face of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic during the 60s and 70s by the poet Padraig Rooney. The other was a chilly account of the Birmingham Six, the six Irishmen who were wrongly convicted for two 1974 bombings that killed 21 people and seriously injured 170 or more, by Chris Mulilin, the journalist who wrote a book that helped prove their innocence (though not until many years after they were imprisoned). The people who committed the crimes have never been brought to justice, though Mullins knows who they are. He writes that the purpose of his reporting was to prove the innocence of the Six, and “Journalists do not disclose their sources.” A reporter’s account of his own reporting makes for fascinating reading. As I read his essay I remembered the powerful film In the Name of the Father (and its impeccable soundtrack), then looked up the movie and remembered that it was actually about a different case, the Guildford Four, in which four different Irishmen were falsely accused of a different bombing in England. Like the Birmingham Six, those men spent some 15 years in prison before their innocence was proven and they were released. 
  • In Barbara Newman’s review of a Jack Hartnell history book, I read about “medieval bodies.” Newman reports on extremes of feasting and fasting; exaggerated depictions of whiteness and blackness; laws governing what people wore for the purpose of identifying them by their profession or social status (“French prostitutes could not wear embroidery, pearls, gilt buttons, or robes trimmed with squirrel fur”); Pope Joan, the 9th-century lady who cross-dressed and fooled everyone into letting her become pontiff until she got pregnant and either died giving birth or was murdered (modern scholars think that most likely none of this actually happened); women who shaved their eyebrows and wore cone-shaped hats during a period in the 15th century when having a broad forehead was considered very beautiful; and the idea that witches could cast a spell to make a man’s penis disappear. Bodies: They’re weird! 

  • I read an unusual meditation on the idea of “the beach” by Inigo Thomas. He first discusses the meaning of the word “pebble”—its etymology is obscure, but he writes that “Pebbles begin as a fragment of rick that through natural agency has broken away from the rockface” and quotes Clarence Ellis’ book The Pebbles: “The weather, very slowly, but very surely, breaks down even the hardest rock.” Later, he evokes Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, which was made from two thousand square meters of black Doria marble from Genoa and thirty thousand Moorish tiles purchased from an American collector, among other materials. Very grand indeed, but Thomas reminds us, “There’s no argument about rising sea levels, only their causes. … eventually Mar-a-Lago too will be worn down by the actions of the waves. A house on the shore is no less transient that a pebble on the beach.”
  • I read Madeleine Schwartz’s review of two books by Kathleen Collins that were prepared for publication posthumously by her daughter Nina some thirty years after they were written. Collins, a Black writer who worked in the 70s and 80s, wrote stories, plays, and films, though many of them did not see the light of day during her lifetime. Collins wrote stories that showed, in her words, “African Americans as human subjects and not as mere race subjects.” Schwartz writes that, though Collins’ characters tend not to be overtly political themselves, the title story of her book Whatever Happened to Interracial Love looks at “the pressure and lies created by racism.” When her only film, Losing Ground, was made in 1982, it couldn’t get distribution in arthouse movie theaters “because they couldn’t imagine who would want to watch it,” Schwartz writes. She refers to an essay on the film by Phyllis Rauch Klotman, who writes that “audiences complained that the movie had no ghettos, ‘no ‘poor suffering black folk.’ ” But Schwartz reminds us that the Collins stories that were released just a few years ago were received with a similar bemusement; critics seemed unsure of what to make of these “stories of black love and conversation” that don’t fit easily into the walled-off categories of our understanding of art or race.
American writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins

Happy National Handwriting Day!

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Yes, there is such a thing as a National Handwriting Day, and it just so happens that I have a short review of a book about handwriting in the current print issue of Utne. Today seems like the perfect day to share it with you. I interviewed the book’s author, Anne Trubek, as well, and Utne plans to post our Q&A on their website, so I’ll link to that once they have.

Trubek and I talked about the history of writing by hand, as well as the demise of this ancient art, which she says is certain but likely to be very drawn out. I don’t have particularly sentimental feelings about handwriting myself, but I am very interested in it (and have been collecting articles on the subject for years now). It’s been fascinating for me to watch the shift from pen to keyboard take place. Though I’m not yet hideously, horribly old, I got an old-fashioned Catholic school education as a kid, and our school had dedicated penmanship classes at a time when that sort of instruction was already falling out of favor. As many, many news outlets have reported in recent years, learning to write by hand has only become more uncommon since then. These days, the majority of adults in the U.S. use keyboards and smartphones for writing far more often than they use paper and ink, and that includes me. That being said, I also have about 20 dear pen-pals who I write handwritten letters to on a regular basis, and I still much prefer to jot down ideas and notes in a small notebook that I carry around in my bag, rather than on my fiddly little phone or my cumbersome laptop. The truth is, I enjoy being able to use all of these tools, new-fangled and time-tested alike, and I think we’re awfully lucky to get to live in a time when we can have our pick.

The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting
by Anne Trubek
Bloomsbury

As digital supplants print as our default medium and writing by hand goes the way of the dinosaur—whether you remember your penmanship classes from grade school, or were already keyboarding by the time you were ten—chances are good you have an opinion on handwriting. As Anne Trubek shows us in her vigorous new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, it’s a subject people have had strong feelings about for a long time.

Trubek, a former Oberlin professor, acts as an unsentimental tour guide through handwriting’s history, from the earliest impressions in clay to a modern American classroom, where second graders learn both to type on a keyboard and write by hand. At the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, she has the pleasure of holding a clay Sumerian cuneiform tablet in her hand, just as the person who wrote on it with a stylus did some 5,000 years ago. (It’s surprisingly small and comfortable to hold, not unlike her smartphone.)

The author shows us how medieval scribes copied out manuscripts by hand, and tells us what happened when the printing press came along to make their work obsolete: Interestingly, the new technology didn’t immediately replace the old one, and “scores” of manuscript books were made after the production of printed books began. We also learn that by the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans had a variety of scripts that denoted social class, gender, and profession. In fact, the few English women who were taught during the 16-19th centuries learned a special script called Italian hand, “a simpler script for the simpler sex.”

In looking toward handwriting’s “uncertain future,” Trubek seems to decide it’s not all that uncertain: It’s on its way out, though it will probably take a very long time to go. Many people find this time of flux disturbing, and long for the human-ness of handwriting, a fact Trubek reports without scorn—though she’s dismissive of recent research that has come out from several universities suggesting that handwriting is cognitively superior to typing in various ways, calling the science “fuzzy.”

Though much has changed, all of the concerns Trubek touches on in her history of handwriting—class and gender, culture and tradition—have resonance for us today. Even the desire to return to the warmth and authenticity of handwriting has a recent historical precedent, she writes. One hundred years ago, William Morris and friends revived medieval calligraphy methods as a response to the industrial revolution, “with its machines and smog and printed letters.” Just as letterpress printing is considered an art form today, those revivalists called their illuminated pages artworks, preserving their beauty for a world that no longer needed them for communication.