Saturday, December 20, 2014

Shady Characters by Keith Houston

Romping through the history of writing is so much fun with Keith Houston as a guide. His essays in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks each focus on one or two symbols, with tangental explorations along the way. It is a fascinating journey.

Common characters like quotation marks, the hyphen and the dash had never before excited my curiosity, although I do get worked up about their shape limitations on this blogging platform. (It irritates me that I have to resort to two hyphens in a row to approximate an m-dash. I also would prefer to have proper, curved quotation marks, instead of the ugly straight-up-and-down things that are identical on either end of a quotation.) Anyway, Houston traces the long road through history to the quotation marks and dashes we use today.

"The abundance of fussily named and proportioned dashes came into its own in the swirling melee of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century punctuation. Despite the superficial conformity that printing had imposed on all the jostling marks in circulation, the use of punctuation was still haphazard and excessive--and the dash was at the center of the melee."

From hand-lettered manuscripts to various kinds of printing presses to manual typewriters to computer keyboards, the way we get words on a page (or screen) has influenced the characters we use. I had forgotten that I learned to type on a machine without an exclamation mark key. To create one, we had to make a period, then backspace, and then type an apostrophe over the period.
Examples of symbols are shown in
red throughout the text in
Shady Characters. There are also
plenty of photo illustrations.

The history of punctuation is entwined with the history of books in general, which is another reason that I found Shady Characters irresistible.

"Perhaps the most jarring omission from early printed books was the lack of a proper title page: the closest analogous feature was the "colophon," a single leaf at the back of the book that described its provenance to a greater or lesser degree, including the details such as its title, date and place of its printing--though curiously enough, almost never its author. Over time the colophon was increasingly transposed to the front of the book to greet the reader as he or she opened it, and became in the process a playground for typographic experimentation."

The final chapter documents the efforts, over the centuries, of writers who have lobbied for marks to indicate irony and sarcasm.

"Then came the Internet, plucking many a shady character from obscurity and thrusting them back into the light. The quotidian @ symbol became indispensable; the octothorpe was recast as the dashing hashtag, and the interrobang gained a new generation of admirers. The mythical ironics had their long-awaited debut, and the irony mark was revived too, though their new lease on life came with a caveat. The subtle shadings of verbal irony were bleached flat in the blinding glare of the new medium: what the Internet really wanted to communicate was not irony, but its laser-guided offspring, sarcasm."

Shady Characters is informative and highly entertaining.

Readalike authors: Mary Roach (Packing for Mars; Gulp), Bill Bryson, Simon Garfield (Just My Type) and Amy Stewart (The Drunken Botanist).

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