Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

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“An absolutely fascinating blend of history, design, sociology, and cultural poetics—highly recommended.”—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
A charming and indispensable tour of two thousand years of the written word, Shady Characters weaves a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography.
Whether investigating the asterisk (*) and dagger (†)—which alternately illuminated and skewered heretical verses of the early Bible—or the at sign (@), which languished...
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Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

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“An absolutely fascinating blend of history, design, sociology, and cultural poetics—highly recommended.”—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
A charming and indispensable tour of two thousand years of the written word, Shady Characters weaves a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography.
Whether investigating the asterisk (*) and dagger (†)—which alternately illuminated and skewered heretical verses of the early Bible—or the at sign (@), which languished in obscurity for centuries until rescued by the Internet, Keith Houston draws on myriad sources to chart the life and times of these enigmatic squiggles, both exotic (¶) and everyday (&).From the Library of Alexandria to the halls of Bell Labs, figures as diverse as Charlemagne, Vladimir Nabokov, and George W. Bush cross paths with marks as obscure as the interrobang (?) and as divisive as the dash (—). Ancient Roman graffiti, Venetian trading shorthand, Cold War double agents, and Madison Avenue round out an ever more diverse set of episodes, characters, and artifacts.Richly illustrated, ranging across time, typographies, and countries, Shady Characters will delight and entertain all who cherish the unpredictable and surprising in the writing life.
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Editorial Reviews

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Until the internet, punctuation marks seem to have been melting into one gelatinous liquid: commas, semi-colons, colons, and even periods were beginning to seem almost interchangeable; & was slipping into unmourned obsolescence and # was nowhere in sight. Now thanks to email and Twitter, hashtags, exclamation points, and smiley faces have refocused our attention on the little signs that we take for granted. Keith Houston's Shady Characters traverse the entire terrain of punctuation mark history from ampersands and apostrophes to understrikes and vertical bars. Editor's recommendation.

Publishers Weekly
For fans of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, this bestiary of lesser-known punctuation marks is a wonder. Blogger Houston, though a self-admitted amateur in the world of typography, speaks with all the enthusiasm of a true geek. The book is liberally sprinkled with footnotes (and a hefty 50 pages of end notes), appropriate considering that nearly every punctuation symbol in this book gained its start from the annotation marks of monks, scribes, or scholars. (The chapter on daggers and asterisks, of course, uses those symbols to mark the asides.) Some game-changers, like the sudden confines of the typing press or the yet-more-restrictive typewriter, extend their influence across numerous chapters. Each character brings its own brand of intrigue, from the closed case of why paragraphs are now indented—the blank space was left for the pilcrow, ¶, which lazy or hurried scribes left out—to the murkier question of who named the octothorpe. The # is not, as Twitter might have you believe, officially called a hashtag. True, the differences between seven kinds of dashes and hyphens are not life-and-death matters, but for anyone interested in the quirks of English punctuation without a lecture about how grammar is dead, this book satisfies that curiosity nicely. 75 illus. Agent: Laurie Abkemeier, DeFiore and Company. (Sept.)
Constance Hale
“I'm a sucker for this stuff. The @ is called chiocciola (snail) in Italian! The & was once taught as a letter of the alphabet! The manicule has been with us for a millennium! Thank you, Keith Houston, for bringing these little mysteries out of the shadows of typographic history.”
Library Journal
Houston, who writes the Shady Characters blog, has corralled several stories related to various punctuation marks and typographical symbols, tracing them from their origins or earliest known uses to the present. The punctuation marks and symbols range from the everyday, such as quotation marks and hyphens, to the less common (e.g., asterisks and ampersands) and the obscure (e.g., the manicule—the pointing hand seen on many medieval and pseudomedieval shop signs). Most of the chapters address the symbols' creations or early uses and the ways their meanings have mutated through time, but in the book's final chapter Houston relates the attempts of writers, editors, and typographers to convey sarcasm and irony in print. Although well researched and annotated, this volume has more in common with the anecdotal journalism of Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference) than with standard history writing. Idiosyncratic and rambling, this isn't a scholarly text or reference work and can even be frustrating as a casual read. However, Houston has no agenda and isn't trying to prescribe or proscribe any particular grammatical styles. Instead, he uses the symbols and punctuation marks as hooks on which to hang often esoteric, usually fascinating bits of history and culture, as well as tales of the many eccentric (human) characters who have influenced typography and punctuation. VERDICT This book will reward the reader who is less interested in finding the answers to specific questions than in learning about the topic in general.—Robert Mixner, Bartholomew Cty. P.L., Columbus, IN
Kirkus Reviews
A mostly amusing, informative history of punctuation. Several years ago, Houston, a computer programmer, came down with a bad case of pilcrow-infatuation. Obsessed with the archaic glyph used to mark the beginnings of paragraphs, he laboriously traced its storied past, encompassing "the ancient Greeks, the coming of Christianity, Charlemagne, medieval writing, and England's greatest twentieth-century typographer." One of these things is not like the other, and readers who do not share Houston's malady will find it difficult to understand the intensity of his interest in punctuation. Spurred on by a chance encounter with the widow of the creator of the interrobang ("a hybrid question mark/exclamation point"), the author broadened his focus. From the first visual markers denoting word boundaries in Greek and Roman texts to the development of computerized kerning and letter-scaling systems ("[d]enizens of the typographic world were not amused," fearing that automation threatened the purity of their craft), Houston explores the roles a variety of punctuation marks have played in the popular imagination. The forgotten manicule, the modest dash and the ampersand all make appearances, as do intriguing characters from millennia past: Scrolls at the library of Alexandria featured the "dotted diple"--"used to mark passages where the scholar differed with the reading of other critics." The author also keenly laments perceived punctuational slights--e.g., the world's longest footnote, a 165-page aside cataloging Britain's Roman walls, "is, sadly, introduced by the letter u rather than an asterisk or dagger." The book is often engrossing, but the author can never quite decide if he is aiming for a substantive book on the history of written expression or for a compendium of errata. Scores of prints from ancient and medieval manuscripts suggest the former; the final chapter, an exhaustive anthology of proposals for marking irony and sarcasm, many on deleted personal webpages, the latter. An unusual triumph of the human ability to find exaltation in the mundane.
Ben Yagoda
“If Eats, Shoots & Leaves whetted your appetite on the subject of punctuation, then you have a treat in store. Shady Characters is an authoritative, witty, and fascinating tour of the history and rationale behind such lesser known marks as the ampersand, manicule, the pilcrow, and the interrobang. Keith Houston also explains the octothorpe—otherwise known as the hashtag—and and my final comment on his book is #awesome.”
Robin Sloan
“Make no mistake: this is a book of secrets. With zeal and rigor, Keith Houston cracks open the &, the #, the † and more—all the little matryoshka dolls of meaning that make writing work. Inside, we meet novelists, publishers, scholars and scribes; we range from ancient Greeks to hashtagged tweets; and we see the weird and wonderful foundations of the most successful technology of all time.”
Michael D. Schaffer and John Timpane - Philadelphia Inquirer
“Funny, surprising, and, of course, geeky.”
Andrew Robinson - Nature
“Might make you look at books… in an entirely new way.”
Jan Gardner - Boston Globe
“Houston…is a tireless researcher and an amiable teacher.”
Carl W. Scarbrough - New Criterion
“A pleasurable contribution to type history, particularly for readers who haven’t considered the ampersand in any detail.”
Rob Kyff - The Courant
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393064421
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 627,654
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Keith Houston is the creator of the Shady Characters blog. He and his wife live in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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Customer Reviews

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