SHADY CHARACTERS by Keith Houston

SHADY CHARACTERS

The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

KIRKUS REVIEW

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.

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-393-06442-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2013




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