“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.
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.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Highly informative & entertaining.
Keith Houston's succinct, yet highly enlightening first book is an awesome read if linguistically histories, typographical studies, or vocabulary study in general interest you. Each eponymous chapter will cover a mark of punctuation that's typically ubiquitous in culture and in print (e.g. %,£,&,#) and then delve into relating terms, symbols and other miscellaneous information before concluding with a satisfying close. Some choices such as the Pilcrow are more of a curiosity investigation, which isn't to say that these sections aren't excellent as well; everything that's chosen for this book all seem like exceedingly worthy candidates from a much longer list of seemingly hieroglyphic marks. Ultimately though, it's the authors passion and beautiful love of the written word that make Shady Characters such a joy to read, I highly recommend even if you've nothing more than a passing fancy in these types of books. It's truly something that will remain with you long after you read it, for its subject matter is inescapably all around us ;)