Here’s something to pause and consider as we debate technology’s impact on media. The Wall Street Journal has found a 23,000-circulation daily newspaper which is written by hand. Since its founding in 1927, the Chennai, India Musalman has relied on katibs, or scribes, to write its contents in a graceful, flowing Urdu script called Nastaliq. The katibs write in ink using reed quills, just like the ancient Greeks.
And to relieve the suspense: no, they don’t handwrite all 23,000 copies. The original handwritten pages are photographed and then printed. So technically speaking, it’s only the composing technique that dates back to the days of papyrus. But still..!
Apparently the subtle beauties of Nastaliq script can’t quite be duplicated by type. A local truck driver described calligraphy’s appeal: “We get a personal touch when the newspaper is written by hand.”
Of course, the news was written by hand for centuries before printing was developed. Handwritten newsletters were fairly common among merchants in medieval Europe.
In Britain handwritten newsletters survived well after the birth of newspapers. Although there may have been a few English readers who appreciated the personal touch, what really kept the scriveners employed were the censorship laws, which applied to printed matter but not to handwritten correspondence. Because their editors had more latitude in what they could report, the handwritten newsletters were in high demand. Subscriptions were expensive, but coffeeshops found they were a good investment: the newsletters drew customers.
We suspect that the quality of penmanship rises in inverse proportion to the difficulty of writing. The elegant, legibile cursive that our forebears achieved with goose quills and steel pens is virtually a lost art, as quaint as the horesedrawn carriage.
We’re guessing that the quality of contents is related to the writing instrument, too. You have to think harder when you can’t erase a mistake. It may be that the Musalman is written just a little better than its competitors, given the high cost of correcting the galleys.