Home » 2012 » October

Against the fading of handwriting


The writing on the wall is cursive

There are states in the US that are abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting.

Never mind that learning cursive writing in Grade 3 is a rite of passage, something that turns us from “little kids” into those who can decipher scrawled notes in adult hand.

IMG_2595Never mind that in order to learn to make your pen glide smoothly over the page, you have to develop fine motor skills that print writing does not develop – the very motor skills that are needed by surgeons, scientists and computer technicians.

Never mind that cursive writing develops spatial skills which cannot be replicated by those you learn in computer games.

Never mind that hand, pen and paper work in an alchemy which has proven to increase your ability to recall information.

Cursive handwriting was invented so that we can write faster. We need to write fast because of the speed at which thoughts form. Poor handwriting slows you down and you can’t keep up with your mind’s attempt to have a thought, form it into a sentence and remember it long enough to write it down.

But never mind that children are being denied the complexity of thought that cannot be simulated by the mechanical tapping of fingers on keys.

Never mind the loss of the aesthetics of beautiful handwriting.

Future generations will lose the ability to write in cursive, cursive will become arcane, the territory of specialist ability, but it is none of those other things about the loss of cursive that I mourn. It is the loss of individuality.

What, I beg of you, is more conformist than type? Than Calibri, Verdana and Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica? Indeed, they make our lives easier, make teachers’ lives easier, that’s for sure. But they can never replace the exclusive, exceptional beauty of the unique individuality of ink that loops across a page written in the style of a single incomparable human being.

Apart from your fingerprint, or your DNA – both of which must attest to your individuality as a human quietly and behind the scenes – your handwriting is the only real mark you can leave on your every day that proves to you that you are not like the rest.

In these states in the US where they are abandoning the teaching of cursive, they are doing so in order to concentrate on keyboarding.

I spent five years in total at university and in all that time the skill I am most aware of daily, the one that makes my practical life so much easier, is the ability to touch type. I am all for the skill of keyboarding. It’s essential. In fact, when I see people bent over the keyboards with their eyes on their fingers, which are pecking away laboriously only as fast as their eyes can locate individual letters and numbers, the inefficiency of their work method pains me. Keyboarding is an essential skill.

But to learn it instead of cursive writing? Isn’t that retrogression? Isn’t the point of life going forwards, learning more, being cleverer than our parents and twice as clever as our great-great grandparents? Isn’t that evolution? Is it not then counter-intuitive to decide to learn less? To trade one necessary skill – and I have already made the point that cursive is necessary – for another?

Society needs its intellectuals, thinkers, planners, designers as much as it needs its road builders and plumbers, its merchandisers and receptionists, its managers, accountants and dentists.

The hallmarks of intellectualism and creativity are a refusal to accept mainstream thought. What does cursive writing have to do with that? It has to do with an assertion of your very simple “own-ness”.

On top of which, if you want to be a writer, your hand, a good pen, and that Egyptian gift that keeps on giving – paper – are going to be your anchors, your roots, your steering wheels, your gears and your GPS whenever you paint yourself into intellectual corners, reach what feels like the end of your creative and emotional tether, or want to scream in frustration and rage at the world without anyone hearing. Writing is a life mapped, a font – and I use the word in both senses of its meaning – of thought.

The world wants good communicators, clear thinkers, idea makers. Nothing puts you in a better position to be all of those things – across any career you can possibly think of – than the ability to express yourself clearly in writing. Being a good writer does not mean that your career is limited to writing. Good writing is an indication that there is a sharp, enquiring mind behind the printed words. That even though the writers do not have the answers, they know the questions to ask.

That they are able to work out problems using words. Not just the not insignificant problems of plotting, style, rhythm, word choice, but how to imagine the lives of other people or other beings. The ability to see through the small dramas of daily life to what the emotional drivers are that set events in motion. To be able to express the universal longing or the bonds we human animals form with the natural world.Or to bravely question the very nature of god.

Writers have the gift of being able to spread the threads of humanity between us, to think about the problems that face our society and write new blueprints.

Separate letters on a page might form a picture, even meaning, but cursive joins the letters in new and interesting and beautiful ways. Humans are linked in a sort of cursive of universality by the ability to communicate authentically, clearly and empathically.

Writers are not soldiers of conformity. We should resist pressure to make life easier by reading abridged versions, or summaries – or by learning to type instead of writing cursive.

Schimke is a freelance writer, poet and columnist and the editor of the Cape Times books pages. This is an extract from a speech delivered at the launch of English Alive, the literary magazine for South African school students.

This piece first appeared in the Cape Times. Read the full piece here


“Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”

The narrator of The Lacuna (Barbara Kingsolver) sheepishly admits to the character of Leo Tolstoy that he is writing a novel. “It’s nothing that will liberate the people,” he says.

Tolstoy replies: “A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does a man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison? To Dostoyevsky! To Gogol!”

It’s an imagined conversation, but Tolstoy’s exclamation rings true to the character Kingsolver has created.

The novel, that oft-denigrated – but tenacious – genre; when will people stop looking down their noses at it? When will they acknowledge that it creates a safe space for slipping sideways from our own confining lives and that that is a good thing?

Whenever someone tells me in sniffy tones that they can’t be bothered with fiction, I have to bite my tongue just a little, as I often must when I encounter other examples of dense arrogance.

There’s no doubt that personal reading history, psychic developmental leaps, personal taste, age and perhaps even (I say this gingerly) gender, all colour people’s reading preferences. I am more partial to fiction than to non-fiction  in general, but at times I tire of what fiction offers and find my reading needs more adequately met by non-fiction.

Usually my needs are met by variety. So, while I’ve been reading The Lacuna, I’ve also been consulting a very old book of mine on Frida Kahlo (Kingsolver’s novel is about Kahlo and her communist artist husband Diego Riviera), called Kahlo (by Andrea Kettenmann and published by Taschen), as well as the thorough Reader’s Digest Facts at your Fingertips (because I needed to remind myself of Russia’s leaders in the twentieth century). This last is faster and more reliable than Google.

Before The Lacuna I was swept like so many millions around the world into Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, where the shards of magic dazzle in the blanket weave of a rich and eloquent modern fable.

My books seem to have a travelling pattern: the novel is intrepid, travelling everywhere with me in my handbag or the crook of my arm – a charm against wasted reading time and boredom (all that waiting around in cars and queues when I could be reading). There’s only ever one novel on the go.

Non-fiction is more domesticated, but more restless, staying home but shifting between the rooms of the house and places I sit (or stand – I sometimes read while stirring pots). Currently there are two of them open and face-down in various convenient places, the most compelling being All About Love, by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago), a magisterial, humane and astoundingly researched work, girded and bolstered by Appigananesi’s intelligent, brawny prose.

The other one arrived in the post one day in December: a gift from a male friend of mine who has a son the same – rather spiky – age as my own pre-pubescent son. We’d been talking about their odd mood swings, intermittent testosteronal surges that flop into poignant moments of hold-me-I’m-just-a-little-boy.

My son was next to me when I opened the unexpected package: Raising Boys by Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph. He raised a sceptical eyebrow and said: “Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”

He’s right of course. Neither fiction nor non-fiction have The Answer to everything, maybe even to anything. They just offer varieties of options, little soupçons of possibilities, and – if we’re lucky – clumps of truths that will never be ours, but settle, as only truth can, in the corners of the heart. If you have a mind at all you will absorb, digest and reject everything you’ve ever read in the lifetime’s span of reading. And found your own answers.

Speaking of my son: he is the fussiest of readers. When he can’t find anything by one of his favourite authors he mopes around complaining about the dearth of reading material and refusing to be to be drawn down unexplored reading avenues. He has his own mysterious reading road map.

For months, while waiting for the next Rick Riordan novel to come out and make him happy for the two days in which he disappears from this world into Percy Jackson’s, I have been trying to get him to read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There.

He refused on the grounds that it’s not fiction and (this one unspoken) it is recommended by his mother – whose general intelligence he is currently regularly questioning.

Yesterday he flumped into my office, barely able to speak from laughing. “Mom! Mom! Listen to this…” and he read me a paragraph from Neither Here Nor There.

Either his desperation for something to read, or a moment of weakness in his will to resist me and non-fiction, had brought him around finally.

And so begins, I hope, a new relationship with a new genre for one ardent reader

This appeared in the Cape Times and can also be read here: Books SA

COLUMN: I like my books dirty

“I’m all precious about the thing, causing somewhat of a distance between myself and the book it holds. Instead of the book becoming an extension of me – like my hair clips or flip-flops or battered handbag – it is an expensive little gem that requires care and attention I feel unable to give.”

The month I read my first e-book. Here’s what I think:

I like my books dirty.

The reverence that some hold of the product – the paper thing between covers – is not something I appear to be capable of.

I came to this realisation because I read my first ebook this month on a tablet given to me as a gift.

After fiddling around with the new contraption I realised that I wasn’t going to use it much unless I did something with it I really wanted to. So I ventured into the mysterious world of on-line book buying and came away with Jeffrey Eugenides new book The Marriage Plot.

I’ve written before that I don’t see myself as someone who would easily convert to ebooks. So I tested the hypothesis and my main finding was that I’m not very nice to my paper books. It won’t do to balance a cup of coffee on the e-reader on the way to the stoep. I can’t let it drop to the floor next to the bed as I do when I start nodding off, or read it in the bath or on the beach or in the park or while I am frying onions.

I’m all precious about the thing, causing somewhat of a distance between myself and the book it holds. Instead of the book becoming an extension of me – like my hair clips or flip-flops or battered handbag – it is an expensive little gem that requires care and attention I feel unable to give.

I don’t feel that way about paper books. I know this is anathema to many people. It’s also why I am loathe to borrow books because I know I work them hard, that my consumption of them requires them to negotiate the rough terrain of careless hands, pencil scribbles, dog ears, and my obsessive reading habits which require me to take the thing everywhere – meaning it gets stuffed into grubby handbags and gets read over solitary lunches and during chocolate binges.

When I am being careful with a book, I read less, slower and with greater difficulty.

Another draw-back of this e-book awe is that I feel limited by carrying around something that is so desirable to so many people. I didn’t take it to the park with the kids. I didn’t leave it on the passenger seat when I went hopped out at the shops. In short, I became more furtive about reading because I was worried someone was going to bop me over the head and carry away my gift.

I am not dismissing ebooks though, and have come to the conclusion that this is not an either/or debate. The point of all books is to convey the story. The vehicle is almost secondary. And once Eugenides hooked me, I read with appetite and delight, sometimes even forgetting I was holding a mini computer instead of a paperback. And he – Eugenides – was the second author of the month (after I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna) that made February a dazzler the other months this year are going to have a hard time outshining.

Eugenides ended rather abruptly, what with me being unable to assess how the close the end of the book was from the little bar at the bottom of the reading pane. From there I splashed into Milan Kundera’s Immortality with too much lightness, the philosophical themes being unaligned with the ones I am currently engaged in – and splashed right out again into something fizzier, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – a radical and surprisingly enjoyable departure from my usual reading preference. Now I am swimming in a placid lake of a book: The Fox In The Attic by Richard Hughes, epic and atmospheric.

Over lunch just now some crumbs fell on to the page and the cheese left a tiny smear of grease. The book and I are now bonded by the mess of the prosaic. –

This column can also be read here: Books SA


COLUMN: Facing the wild things

Mostly we read because it pleases us, but sometimes what we read is not “pleasing”, or “enjoyable” but we don’t stop just because the going gets rough. There is some other reward that is not related to our simple understandings of what pleasure might be.

Mostly we read because it pleases us, but sometimes what we read is not “pleasing”, or “enjoyable” but we don’t stop just because the going gets rough. There is some other reward that is not related to our simple understandings of what pleasure might be.

This month I’ve been struggling with what that other reward might be because friends kept asking me what Nadine Gordimer’s new book No Time Like The Present is like.

I don’t have a simple answer. It’s not “excellent” – to be recommended in that serious or breathless voice we save for books that really do sweep us off our feet.

It’s not even really “good” in the usual ways: brilliant writing that shakes itself loose of the page and becomes airborne; unusual concepts approached in new and interesting ways; delightful dialogue that places you directly into someone else’s conversation; a plot you can’t predict.

The fact is, the book is a plodding walk on the steadily increasing incline of South Africa’s of democracy, and it is written so thickly and in such convoluted style – a style that all but disdains the reader – that on a purely aesthetic level it comes across as a chunk of concrete hacked off a modern ruin, rather than a finely moulded piece of clay from the hands of a sensitive ceramicist.

To be brutal, the easy word that comes to mind – the one people would understand most easily in reference to a work of art with a particular effect – is that Gordimer’s new novel is depressing, a word that makes most people turn sharply away. And I don’t want to do that because I think it should be read.

Gordimer is an “important” writer. She is “relevant”. I could use those imperatives, appealing to people’s sense of duty, or interest in the South African situation – even to their own vanity: some readers rate themselves as slightly superior beings for their ability to get through notoriously difficult books.

Really, though, the reason I think we read some books – and Gordimer’s is a case in point – is because it activates our worst fears. And without understanding rationally why that would be desirable, it is a force in us as strong as the desire for pleasure. We want to be scared witless. But as vicariously as possible.

I don’t presume to say something new this matter, but here’s my thinking: if we have our worst fears lead into the light through the once-removed experience of reading about other characters’ experiences, we are finding our way towards a resolution we would not otherwise experience.

The idea, for instance, of being murdered, abducted, tortured and raped is absolutely abhorrent, and yet thrillers and crime fiction easily rate as the most-read fiction books on the planet – other than love stories, which represent their hopeful opposite. Maybe it has to do with facing down a monster. With imagining how we would respond in certain situations. With testing our internal limits through imagination, rather than through – God forbid – direct experience.

Maurice Sendak, the octogenarian writer of the classic Where The Wild Things Are, has always been a strong advocate of scary books for children, postulating that children want to be afraid. Anyone who’s ever been a child – all of us  – know this: how fright – the kind contained in ghost stories, or the peek-a-boo games that give babies such a fright and then make them giggle – is thrilling to the point of inducing visceral anxiety, and how overwhelming its resolution or relief is.

“I refuse to lie to children,” said Sendak in a recent interview. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

That’s why, I suppose, I am glad that this month I read hard and upsetting stuff like No Time Like the Present and So Much Pretty, an unsettling novel by Cara Hoffmann, and – most depressing and frightening of all – an essay by Arundhati Roy – who wrote the 1997 Booker-prize winning The God of Small Things –  entitled Capitalism: A Ghost Story (the original link on OutlookIndia.com appears to be broken).

Because my horror was being contained and managed for me by writers who have already faced the Wild Things and returned not just safely, but alloyed.

This column can also be read here: Books SA


Words are toys, and Mark Forsythe of The Inky Fool knows how to play. Just got The Horologicon to review. Happyhappy, because I so enjoyed his previous book The Etymologicon.

The Horologicon is organised around our wakeful times and it begins, as it should, with dawn. I’ve only just read the first chapter and have already added a few useful words to my lexicon. Like “hypnopompic” – those “strange half-dreamful, half-conscious delusions and illusions”. And “day-peep”, a word eighteenth century farmers used for “dawn”. There’s also “dayening” and “early bright”.

A bit of a horror in the modern English ear, but a joyously precise word, is “uhtceare”. It’s not a word for dawn, but for pre-dawn worries. “Uht” is the word for “the restless hour before dawn”. “Ceare”, which Forsythe tells us is pronounced key-are-a, was an Old English word for care and sorrow, “emotions that have an annoying habit of striking during the uht”.

This is etymology dressed for a party while it wittily inserts asides on history and social development.

I’m not sure I retained that much new information from The Etymologicon, except the memory of amazement and laughter. I’m making a point of remembering “uhtceare” though – so that I can sigh dramatically when the sky is “day-raw” and console myself that at least there is a name for my pre-dawn affliction.

COLUMN: Violence to the reader

girl with book

Violence has many modes.

Subtle, sly and underhand. Overtly, erratically aggressive, or relentlessly “gently” teasing.

It is the unquestioned daily terror of powerful institutions against individuals, and the small daily terrors of weak individuals displaying their intellect, muscle or money like weapons to cow others.

It can be passive, psychic, verbal, physical, sexual, global, local. It can mask itself as “Mommy knows best” or “Daddy is the boss” or “God says”.  It is not gendered. It has all colours, all dogmas, all cultures in its thrall. It is doesn’t only hold sway in the province of human interaction, but thunders in the sky, from under the earth, in the wind and on the waves.

We can let life pass us by by every moment fearing it. Many do. We can do our best to avoid it. We can assert (and believe) that we are incapable of it. We can resist it, plot ways to neutralise it. Narrowly sidestep it, or crash right into by accident. We can even use violence against it, pre-emptively or in response to it.

But violence remains. Violence is.

The story of extreme violence – the kind the religious might pray fervently to avoid, while the irreligious engage in other forms of magical thinking – is what one Eli Sanders wrote about in her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature article entitled The Bravest Woman in Seattle. She reports on the testimony of a woman in court, who must comb-through and nitpick, under cross examination, a night of such chilling brutality, it almost seems unreal.

Sanders’ writing is so simple that its effects on the reader seems disproportionately perverse. Before the reader’s un-avertable eyes, a woman speaks in court, and Sanders reports on it.

No violence is done to the reader, but to read it, is to absorb violence. Its diminishing aftershocks – washing on to my shores years later, from a place I have never been, done to a woman whose name I do not know, and conveyed through the miracle of satellite and fibre-optic cable – made me heave. Where my hand was clapped over my mouth, tears pooled. I will never forget that story. Not its details, nor how it was told.

In my German novel, In Zeiten des Abnehmenden Lichts by Eugen Ruge, I read about institutional violence, enforced through fear of betrayal and personal disgrace. It is the multi-generational story of a politically active family in the DDR and spans several decades. It is painfully beautifully written, each voice so idiosyncratically personal  in tone and content, it seems impossible it was written by only one person. It is also my favourite kind of novel: one which explores the inevitable intersection between the political and the personal.

The English translation of the title is “In times of diminishing light”. It won the Deutscher Buchpreis, and translation rights have been sold, so it should soon be available in English.

I was briefly interrupted in this when I picked up When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, by Greg Lazarus, to assess which reviewer to give it to, but got hooked in by its menacing undercurrents of violence. It consumed me quickly.

In between I judged short stories for the South African Writers College annual short story award (all violent), and read This is my Land.

And I began to thoughtfully chew on the flavoursome, knotty gristle of Johann de Lange’s poems in his latest collection, called Vaarwel my effens bevlekte held.

Content, tone, imagery, reaction. It was a month of violent reading. I continue to wrestle.

This piece first appeared in the Cape Times and can also be read here: Books SA

Image Pictoral Review by Nickolas Muray (American 1892-1965) from George Eastman House Collection



COLUMN: That’s it!


Roland Barthes

Before analytical cogs shift into gear, before thought and response, feelings arise in the reader of a novel or a poem. If I do not know what I am about to read – bring no expectation except a wish for a basic pleasure – I will be engaged before I am committed.

Unless the text repels me.

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist and philosopher, said “…the text…can wring from me only this judgment… : that’s it!”

It seems an over-simplification, but it feels true for me.Text – writing – has several sneaky ways of repelling the reader and few of them have to do with subject matter. The off-putting things in a book are myriad and could be minor and are sometimes hard to pin precisely: a lack of authenticity; repetition; cliché; staccato sentences or their opposite – the long-winded, single-sentence paragraph; inconsistencies in punctuation; incorrect grammar; a lack of musicality in language; one-dimensional characters; plot holes; incredible turns of event – it’s a long list.

Sometimes small, almost invisible doses of a combination of these things undermine the reader’s ability to lose him or herself in the story. The story or poem lacks the magic required to hold its audience.

Books are meant to be a conversation: the author “speaks” expecting to be “heard”. The retorts will be private and the author will seldom come to know how an individual reader has responded. But a good, caring author will always know that they are not engaged in a sole enterprise. They will keep their reader in mind, care to communicate something as well as they possibly can.

Real writers, writers who care about communicating, write as a first step, knowing that their text is not sacred, that for it to be ready for a reader it will have to pass through many hands. Hands that will tinker and temper, slash and hack, pull and push, until the writing, the information, the poem, the story is in its best possible form.

Real writers respect and love – fight with, resent, get irritated by, but essentially love – editors. Editors are what stand between writers being taken seriously or falling by the wayside on that long and unforgiving road of publishing.

I say this because I have come into contact, in various ways, with the sticky issue of self-publishing in the past few weeks. I am not against self-publishing per se, but I am hard-pressed to say why not since no self-published book has ever made me say “that’s it!” They are too riddled with mistakes and ego, too self-aggrandising in length and pompous in tone to stimulate anything other than a desire to move on to the next book on my pile.

I will not speak of those. Let me tell you what did make me say “that’s it!” this month, a list topped by an Afrikaans book which, if it is never translated will be a sore loss to world literature.

Sirkusboere by Sonja Loots – with its striking cover design, a yellow poster advertising a circus show which features real Boer War heroes – is an many-legged triumph of caring publishing. The story (I won’t give it away – but it is based on astounding fact) is told with humour, with a tail-swishing elegance of language deployed to entertain and engage, with pace and with brio.

I also read the new Joyce Carol Oates novel Mudwoman which lured me away from any task that seemed pointless in comparison to knowing what happens.

I have been slowly working my way through the newest poems by Kelwyn Sole in Absent Tongues, truly one of South Africa’s foremost poets, whose poems are filled with anger and poignancy over his homeland – with uncomfortable feelings gently worded for those of us who are stumm with sadness.

These books cared deeply about being read. They are well written. More critically: they are well edited.

This column can also be read here: Books SA

Spectacles: a whinge against the inescapable

2012-09-10 19.49.22

2012-10-22 12.18.47These days it takes until around midday for the parallel sleep scars just above the outer edge of my left eyebrow to disappear. My face remains creased longer and longer.

This amuses me. The slow sloppiness of the body’s droop into a new – an older – age is too inevitable to rage against. But if there’s one thing I wish I could appeal against, it is the onset of age-related sight issues.

I cannot love my spectacles yet. One day I will, I know, because they will be all that links me to a page of text. But for now, I resent them.

They fog up when I drink something hot while I’m reading. They get squashed off kilter when I put my face on the pillow in order to read lying on my side. They are never where I need them.

When they’re on and each letter asserts itself from the murk, I forget I have specs. I get up to do something else and bounce off furniture like a drunk – because my glasses are for reading only.

I read and someone comes in to say something. I look up at them and a wave of nausea sweeps over me as they wobble in the distance. I must learn to peer over the top of the rims, like a stern librarian.

I read all the time, and everything. My eyes and alphabetical formations are locked in an ancient relationship in which I have little say.

And now this has come between them: the failing of sight.