What Good Is a List If You Can’t Read It?

"Every man has one thing he can do better than anyone else," a wise educator once noted, "and usually it's reading his own handwriting." In my case, that is not true. I can't tell you the number of times I have rushed home from the library, flung open my notebooks and stared for hours on end at words and phrases I could not make out. Indeed, if this article were not set in type and you had to read my scrawled version of it, you would throw up your hands (and eyeglasses) in despair.

For some of us, there is comfort in knowing that other great persons have also suffered from cacography. Napoleon, for example. His handwriting was so atrocious that notes he sent to his commanding officers looked like maps of the battlefield. That learned essayist Montaigne complained: "My hands are so clumsy I cannot even write so as to read it myself, so that I had rather do what I have scribbled over again, than take upon me the trouble to make it out."

Also indecipherable was the script of the great newspaper editor Horace Greeley. He once fired a staff member who, whatever his shortcomings, had the wit to put Greeley's note of dismissal to good use. Since nobody could make out the writing, the unemployed journalist was able to pass the note off as a letter of recommendation and promptly land himself another job.

Or may I call your attention to this entry on Cleveland Abbe in an old volume of the Dictionary of American Biography? At the conclusion of the article about the pioneer weather forecaster, the writer observes: "From August 1893, [Abbe's] chief duty was the congenial one of editing the Meteorological Journals of the United States Weather Bureau. This caused him to write to hundreds of scholars the world over — a pleasure to him, but a task to those who had to decipher his difficult chirography."

Chirography, is it?

Of course, the typewriter and the computer have pretty much done away with handwritten personal notes and letters anyway. If penmanship is a subject of concern these days, it probably matters mainly to autograph givers (see Bech, John Updike's fictional author, who suffers writer's block while signing his own name) and autograph collectors.

Tug McGraw, the onetime New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher, offered this advice: "Kids should practice autographing baseballs. It's a skill that's often overlooked in Little League." Since my twin sons are devout Little Leaguers, they may well take McGraw's words to heart. I fear, however, that no matter what they do, their autographs will be unreadable. Bad handwriting runs in the family.

Illegibility can be hilarious. In his 1969 movie Take the Money and Run, Woody Allen portrays an inept bank robber. After he pushes his stickup note to a teller, Allen and the teller get into an argument about whether one of the words in the note is "gun" or "gub." The teller consults with a colleague, who mistakes the word "act" in the phrase "act natural" for "abt." Several of the bank's officers get into the act (or abt), and eventually the dispute over what the note says escalates into a rowdy crowd scene. The moral, I guess, is that bank robbers should take courses in penmanship.

At least my bad handwriting has saved me from a life of crime. That is something to be thankful for.

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