Shady Characters

by Keith Houston

Cover image

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 0-393-34972-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 250

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Subtitled The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, Shady Characters is one of those delightfully quirky books that examines the history of something you would not normally connect to history. It's an attempt to document, and in some cases reconstruct, the history of several specific punctuation marks. If you've read and enjoyed Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, this is a near-perfect complement, focusing on more obscure marks and adding in a more detailed and coherent history.

Houston has some interest in the common and quotidian punctuation marks, with chapters on the hyphen, dash, and quotation mark, but he avoids giving a full-chapter treatment to the most obvious periods and commas. (Although one learns quite a bit about them as asides in other histories.) The rest of the book focuses on the newly-popular (the at symbol), the recognizable but less common (the hash mark, the asterisk and dagger symbols used for footnotes, and the ampersand), and the historical but now obscure (the pilcrow or paragraph mark, and the manicule or pointing finger). He even devotes two chapters to unsuccessful invented punctuation: the interrobang and the long, failed history of irony and sarcasm punctuation.

And this is an actual history, not just a collection of anecdotes and curious facts. Houston does a great job of keeping the text light, engaging, and readable, but he's serious about his topic. There are many reproductions of ancient documents showing early forms of punctuation, several serious attempts to adjudicate between competing theories of origin, a few well-marked and tentative forays into guesswork, and an open acknowledgment of several areas where we simply don't know. Along the way, the reader gets a deeper feel for the chaos and arbitrary personal stylistic choices of the days of hand-written manuscripts and the transformation of punctuation by technology. So much of what we now use in punctuation was shaped and narrowed by the practicalities of typesetting. And then modern technology revived some punctuation, such as the now-ubiquitous at sign, or the hash mark that graces every telephone touchpad.

I think my favorite part of this history was using punctuation as perspective from which to track the changing relationship between people and written material. It's striking how much early punctuation was primarily used for annotations and commentary on the text, as opposed to making the text itself more readable. Much early punctuation was added after the fact, and then slowly was incorporated into the original manuscript, first via recopying and then via intentional authorial choice. Texts started including their own pre-emptive commentary, and brought the corresponding marks along with the notes. And then printing forced a vast simplification and standardization of punctuation conventions.

Full compliments to W.W. Norton, as well, for putting the time and effort into making the paper version of this book a beautiful artifact. Punctuation is displayed in red throughout when it is the focus of the text. Endnotes are properly split from footnotes, with asides and digressions presented properly at the bottom of the page, and numbered endnotes properly reserved solely for citations. There is a comprehensive index, list of figures, and a short and curated list of further readings. I'm curious how much of the typesetting care was preserved in the ebook version, and dubious that all of it would have been possible given the current state of ebook formatting.

Typesetting, obscure punctuation, and this sort of popular history of something quotidian are all personal interests of mine, so it's unsurprising I found this book delightful. But it's so well-written and engaging that I can recommend it even to people less interested in those topics. The next time you're in the mood for learning more about a corner of human history that few people consider, I recommend Shady Characters to your attention.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-09-20

Last modified and spun 2015-09-20