The distance between handwriting and typography is at its greatest in the West. It’s been more than five centuries since the Latin alphabet, as we experience it in type, looked anything like letters made with a pen; the very anatomy of our alphabet, with its stonemason’s “serifs” and printer’s “cases,” has come a very long way from writing indeed. It can hardly be surprising that as type has come to represent the official, the sanctioned, and the eternal, handwriting has become an almost trivial appendix to our notion of what letters look like.
It’s especially easy for Westerners to forget what a minority opinion this is. Most of the world attaches special significance to the hand-written, and lives with an intimate knowledge of its forms and an appreciation of its cultural and social dimensions. A Chinese businessperson of stature can be expected not only to admire the calligraphy in a colleague’s office, but to correctly identify it as the work of Song Huizong, and to discuss its virtues with erudition. Contrast this with his American counterpart, who can go an entire career without needing to learn the name of his corporate typeface.
Both senses of the word “writing” remain united in the Arab world, where calligraphy and literacy are at times inseparable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the offices of The Musalman, a Chennai newspaper published since 1927, which has the extraordinary virtue of being the world’s last surviving newspaper written entirely by hand. “We somehow manage to make ends meet,” says one of the newspaper’s four calligraphers (or katibs) who every day devotes three hours to a single page. “There’s no monetary benefit for us, we are just here to learn Urdu.”
The handwritten newspaper gained wider attention last summer when Wired dispatched photojournalist Scott Carney to document The Musalman’s inner workings. Later this year, we may learn more about the paper’s inevitable entanglement with digital typography, when Premjit Ramachandran releases his documentary film The Last Calligraphers. —JH