Synopses & Reviews
Every day we rely on punctuation marks to help us say what we mean, but where did they come from? Consider the ampersand (&), which started life as Pompeian graffiti, or the at sign (@), which languished in obscurity for centuries until rescued by the Internet. These and a host of other intriguing marks populate Keith Houston’s rollicking and richly illustrated Shady Characters. From the Library of Alexandria to the halls of Bell Labs—across time, alphabets, and countries—readers will meet figures as diverse as Charlemagne, Vladimir Nabokov, and George W. Bush as they learn about marks as obscure as the interrobang, as omnipresent as the hashtag (#), and as divisive as the dash (—). Whether investigating what the pilcrow (¶) has to do with medieval Christianity or what became of many ill-fated attempts to produce a standard sarcasm mark, Shady Characters provides a charming and indispensable perspective on two thousand years of the written word.
"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, Â¶, 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.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"If whetted your appetite on the subject of punctuation, then you have a treat in store. 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." Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad
"Make no mistake: this is a book of secrets. With zeal and rigor, Keith Houston cracks open the &, the #, the
"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." Constance Hale, author of < i=""> Vex, Hex, Smash and Smooch <> and < i=""> Sin and Syntax <>
The surprising stories of some well-known—and some outlandish—marks of punctuation.
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.
From ancient Greece to the Internet--via the Renaissance, Gutenberg, and Madison Avenue-- exposes the secret history of punctuation.
A charming and indispensable tour of two thousand years of the written word, weaves a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography.
About the Author
Keith Houston is the creator of the Shady Characters blog. He and his wife live in Edinburgh, Scotland.