Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sign here

When I was in elementary school my family took a vacation to Orlando. At that age, Orlando was synonymous with Disney World. No matter the other attractions- Universal Studios, Parrot Jungle, our gorgeous hotel- Orland (really, Florida) meant the land of Disney. My parents bought me a puffy red rectangular autograph book and a chunky pen. Over the course of the week I filled each white page with a different character's signature: Mickey Mouse, Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin. I still have that book somewhere. And I still have that fascination with autographs.

I've touched before on the disappearance of practiced handwriting. One con I omitted was the depreciation of signatures. I've met celebrities before, but the only physical evidence I have of any of the encounters is a goggle-eyed picture with SNL's Maya Rudolph. In high school I had the Broadway cast of Rent sign my Playbill, and I have plenty of signatures of people I consider superstars (my high school drums teacher and Tina Turner's former drummer; preeminent Penn professors), but none eBay-worthy. Nonetheless I agree with Rhys Tranter on A Piece of Monologue literary blog:

"Writers' signatures hold a particular grip on me, not least for the romantic idea that they bring us closer to the personality of the writers themselves. If we feel close to an author's work, there are times when the printed word can feel like a barrier between us and the original manuscript. A signature offers a stamp of the writer's character and humanity; and in this sense, a signed book can feel like a personal validation of the work."

In our Google culture- it was named the word of the year by the American Dialect Society- authors need not rely on the pen for any writing, let alone their signature. Mobile book authoring, including writing, editing, and publishing on the go, is becoming a commonality more than an innovation. At my office, the publishers have all adopted electronic signatures to authenticate contracts and other financial documents.

Reliance on electronic writing has its obvious downsides: imperfect spell-check, for example, or "spell-Czech" as Wordnik titles its hilarious list of word processor spelling errors. But what about the downside, really the tragedy, of losing the magic of a favorite author's autograph? It may seem hard to fathom that snaking-out-the-door bookstore lines filled with neck-craning fans will ever become an anachronism. But isn't that what we once thought about cellphones, and laptops, and portable MP3 players? I would never have thought, as a fifth grader with tongue poked out, painstakingly forming my cursive letters on blue dotted lines, that by the time I was an official member of the adult workplace the most handwriting I would need would be to jot Post-It reminders for myself and occasionally address an envelope.

I don't want to relinquish the power of authors' signatures to the past. Like Tranter writes, they sparkle with the connection they forge between you and the signer, like no celebrity's Twitter feed can do. This is one area of the old/new publishing divide in which I'm not willing to compromise.


  1. I totally agree. Handwriting itself is an art, or a skill, that rarely taught in schools and certainly not practiced. It's a shame and doesn't leave much about our society for future generations.

    There was an interesting article in the Toronto Star a few months back about it:

  2. An interesting post. If you're interested, I've assembled a small gallery of author signatures from around the web and compiled them here: