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NPR Arts & Life

'The Missing Ink' And The Intimacy Of Writing


When Philip Hensher sat down to write his latest book, he didn't labor away at a computer screen - not even a typewriter.

PHILIP HENSHER: I must be one of the last novelists in England to write all his books longhand.

MARTIN: And longhand is itself the subject of that book. The title is "The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting and Why It Matters." Philip Hensher joins us from the BBC in London. Welcome to the program.

HENSHER: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You actually give a list of things you can learn about someone by the way that you write. These are a couple of my favorites: people who don't join up their letters are often creative and often visually imaginative. Alternatively, they may be a little bit slow.


MARTIN: People who - and this is the next one - people whose handwriting leans forward are often conventional in outlook. People whose handwriting leans backward are often withdrawn. This is based on your own experience, Philip.

HENSHER: Yes. I think so. Well, I think there's a sort of, there might be a slight cultural mismatch here 'cause I've noticed that Americans under the age of 40, almost universally, don't join up their letters. But I think generally that is something that I believe.

MARTIN: It's clear that you love the act of handwriting. You also love writing instruments. You wax on quite eloquently about the pen as an extension of ourselves and that there is this kind of intimacy in the relationship between the writer and the pen. Can you describe what you mean by that?

HENSHER: The pen is really an instrument that feels very warm to us. It feels like a part of ourselves. And there's something wonderful about a pencil that you can chew as you write or a plastic ballpoint that you can reduce to smithereens in your mouth. I love all the aspects of writing because the instruments are just so human, such an extension of the hand and the finger.

MARTIN: You also rightly note that a nice Bic pen can be turned into a device to deliver a walloping spitball.

HENSHER: Everyone's done that, haven't they?


MARTIN: And interesting, you say we don't have this intimacy with computers, but you do acknowledge that the cell phone is somehow different, that we are developing a kind of intimacy with that device.

HENSHER: A kind of intimacy, but it's a sort of bewildered intimacy. I noticed as a novelist I'm always on the lookout for interesting little changes in human behavior. And I would say that ten years ago, people kept their cell phone in their pocket and got it out to make phone calls. And now what you see is people holding it in their hand all the time, gazing at it like a small animal that might bite them if they don't stare at it ceaselessly.

MARTIN: You tell a very moving story at the end of this book about a student of yours who passed away. And she had handwritten a big project for your class, and when you learned of her death, you dug up that paper. Can you describe that story? What did you see on those pages?

HENSHER: Well, this was, I mean, it was a very sad occasion, but it was a precious thing to have. It was hundreds of pages of her thoughts, her stories, her poems, her observations. And what was there - she was a very kind of exuberant person, and that kind of exuberance is always very difficult to capture after someone's died. You'd have to say, well, there's this photograph of her or, oh, I remember this evening. It was brilliant. I can't remember the details. But there it was in her handwriting. It was sort of messy and spilling over and full of loops in odd places and underlinings. And when she had thought of something really brilliant, you could see her pressing harder on the paper. It was all there really, all her personality in the way that she'd set about it. And it was so wonderful because there was nothing kind of premeditated about it. It was just like catching somebody in the act of their personality, if you like.

MARTIN: Philip Hensher's new book is called "The Missing Ink." He joined us from the BBC in London. Philip, thank you so much.

HENSHER: That's a great pleasure.


MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.