Why I stopped writing by hand

Posted: April 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

I used to carry a notebook with me when I was at high-school. It used to be important what it looked like. It used to be from Clairefontaine, a traditional French brand. About 5 years ago, I stopped, only occasionally going back to it. Having moved to France, there was no more point in buying Clairefontaine any more. I now bought Muji, because Muji is like no brand. Why do I feel the urge to tell you what brands my notebooks where and are? Because there is some nostalgia involved. And some vanity. And some Superstition. I used to be proud and happy to use a Clairefontaine notebook while I was living in Germany. There was only one shop in my town that sold them.
France had been the country where I had discovered art. Using Clairefontaine, my own writing was affiliated with France and its culture. The famous books by Moleskine are riding on the nostalgia/superstition/affiliation wave very explicitly (I have a hunch there might always be a bit of superstition in nostalgia). And the reason why I never got one – apart from the exaggerated price – is because I want my writing to be mine, personal, actual. It is bad taste to make some things explicit. Informing potential customers that Hemingway used your notebooks is bad taste. Either the books have intrinsic value, or they don’t. Telling me that Hemingway used them is trying to artificially bestow a spirit on them. It’s, basically, for people that don’t have any imagination.
As for me, I eventually stopped writing by hand altogether because I had notebooks. Notebooks full of notes that I never used, never even looked at again. Notes that were virtually there, but practically lost. I have so many ideas, that I couldn’t see myself taking time to copy notes from my notebooks to rework them, make sense of them, develop the thoughts I planted in them.
When I found out that there was a folda

ble real-size keyboard and a Word to Go application, I started using a Palm Handheld, the cheapest Palm on the market at the time, a Palm Zire 21. I still believe that Palm missed a tremendous marketing opportunity with students. A Palm could have been what the Asus EEE PC became, the first netbook on the m

arket. They could have marketed their product to students all over the world, who wanted to have their classnotes in digital form, but found their notebooks to heavy to carry. But crowdsourcing, intelligent or other, and corporate co-creation portals didn’t exist yet – at least Palm didn’t have one – and so I couldn’t tell Palm about my idea.

In any case, the Palm would synchronize with my computer and I wouldn’t loose any of my notes any more. Did I look at the notes I had made on  the go more frequently? No. But I felt that I could. I felt that they weren’t lost in some book. I felt that with a few clicks, what I had written could circulate, be shared with anyone anywhere in the world and be published. Writing something searchable and transmittable made it worth the while to write at all. Any thought written on my Palm could enter circulation by a simple click. My feeling has hardly changed since then. I feel that to simply exist now, writing has to exist in digital form.
The only thing I use paper notebooks for is to make lists, to jot down one sentence ideas – and even these I prefer to mail to myself with my smartphone whenever possible. But reordering your thoughts by reordering the concepts you work with like what you see on the photo I took when writing an article about documents, still isn’t very easy digitally, even with mindmapping applications. But that’s just a practical frontier.

A few days ago, I talked to a friend who told me last year she had had a handwritten correspondence with a man she was in love with and who had a girlfriend. They had written pages and pages, some of her letters were 15 pages long. I was very impressed by this story. I felt like my friend had just revealed me that she was of a different species, I understood that she inhabited a different world than me. Even as gestures, penpals don’t exist in my world any more. My sole use of letters has become administrative. If I’m in love with a girl and she’s not in my town I try to catch up with her on skype – or wait for her to connect to facebook. Does this seem prosaic? It probably is. But I would find sending letters too nostalgic, and, therefore, somehow ridiculous.
I understood that for my friend and her man, it had been a way to show to each other that they inhabited the same world, a different world, beyond the world they shared with their official boy-friend/girl-friend and with most other people, people like me.
The fact that they wrote to each other, and the fact the letters were lost forever when his girlfriend eventually discovered and burned them all, ads to the appeal of their correspondence. Imagine they had written emails to each other. Do you really think the girl would have gotten any satisfaction out of the operation: “search XYZ/select all/delete”? I don’t think so. She probably wouldn’t even have done it.
Literature, Nelson Goodman says, is allographic art, it can be reproduced, it’s not about unicity or about the touch of the brush. Painting is autographic. And so is epistolary writing. There’s a deep valley separating handwritten and computer-written text. But more than the fact that the paper on which a letter is written has actually been touched by the person who wrote it, it’s the fact that a letter is unique, that it can’t be shared easily, which makes it special – and annoys me.

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