During the last few days of October, when Hurricane Sandy was threatening Western New York, state and local officials advised us as to the important documents we should take with us in the event of an evacuation: deeds, home-insurance policies, birth certificates, passports, and the like. In preparation, we should assemble those documents and place them in a waterproof envelope.
Sound advice, to be sure. But as I read that official list, I thought of a less than official item I would add to it: the file of documents I have kept for years under my father’s well-worn Bible. Contained in that file are notes, letters, and cards from friends and family, including letters from my deceased mother; birthday cards from my wife; holiday cards from my daughter-in-law; and a variety of notes from my son, some of them dating from his early childhood. Unlike the policies and passports, those documents are irreplaceable. And all were written by hand, which makes them all the more valuable.
That value, I might point out, is more than sentimental. It is historical and spiritual. The novelist Philip Hensher, author of The Missing Ink (Macmillan, 2012), has argued, with ample corroboration, that “we are at a moment when handwriting seems to be about to vanish from our lives,”* having been supplanted by the printed—and now the digital—word. If Hensher is right, we would do well to cherish whatever handwritten documents remain extant, irrespective of their author or content. But even if we believe that handwriting, having survived for 5000 years, will always be with us, the act of writing by hand is worthy of renewed attention, if not of veneration. For in the handwritten word, it might be said, the authentic human self is concretely embodied. And the handwritten note or letter, however rough or polished, affords a depth of intimacy between writer and reader that print can only approximate. Little wonder that the world’s great spiritual traditions, Zen included, have accorded the handwritten word—or character—a place of honor, whether the handwritten text be the Torah, the Quran, the Heart Sutra, or the Book of Kells. (more…)