All The News That’s Fit To Write

Photo: Scott Carney

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

I, Calligrapher

Robots have long been useful in completing challenging or hazardous tasks: dismantling explosives, assembling automobiles, winning chess tournaments, etc. Robotlab in Karlsruhe, Germany, is training them for another purpose: calligraphy. Above, an articulated limb renders the Luther Bible in a primitive but serviceable version of the schwabacher script.

This innovation can’t come a moment to soon. For thousands of years, human calligraphers have subjected themselves to years of difficult study, exposing themselves to demanding physical conditions in the service of the written word. Even with the advent of non-toxic ink and cruelty-free vellum, calligraphy is not without its hazards: in addition to carpal tunnel syndrome and asthenopic eye strain, careless practicioners often suffer the socially sclerotic effects of Renaissance Faire attendance or absorptive Tolkienism. Most chillingly, mounting evidence suggests that even in industrialized nations, calligraphy is becoming a popular pastime among children.

Thankfully, technology is coming to our rescue. As these photos suggest, robot calligraphers may soon be employed to create that common household object, the hand-lettered bible in roll form. And overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out. —JH

The Voynich Manuscript

Only if Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien and Will Shortz clubbed together in a moment of wickedness could humanity produce a more vexing object: behold the Voynich Manuscript, a puzzling artifact from the late fifteenth century written by an unknown author, in an unidentified script, in an unknown language. Since 1912, cryptographers, palaeographers, and others with time on their hands have failed to decipher this mysterious document; naturally one theory is that it’s a monstrous hoax, though its text seems to bear the hallmarks of a genuine language (note the cross-references on Zipf’s Law, information entropy, and the Cardan grille). Any theories? —JH

Oakleaf: Behind the Scenes

Kathy Willens, Associated Press

The typeface we designed for The Nature Conservancy is an extension of our Requiem font, which explores the work of sixteenth century scribe Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1480–1527). Arrighi is best remembered as an exemplar of the written italic, but his upright roman capitals capture an interesting balance of calligraphic and typographic traditions. The three variations of the capital T on the left offer different ways of reconciling the influences of the seriffed inscriptional letter and the swashed written one, and it was this kind of tension that we hoped to explore further. On the left screen is an enlargement from Arrighi’s 1523 writing manual Il Modo de Temperare le Penne, and on the right are two variations of the capital E in the font we designed. The cursive form on the left was one of the first digital drawings made by designer Andy Clymer, and we all thought it was immediately successful. In the final font, it’s almost perfectly preserved from this initial stage.

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