Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks

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Today's nonfiction post is Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston. It is 340 pages long including notes and recommended reading and is published by Norton. The cover is red with a Pilcrow casting a shadow with the title and author name in it. There is no sex, no language, and no violence in this book. The tone is scholarly so at times it can be difficult to read; it is told from third person. There Be Spoilers Ahead.
 
From the dust jacket- Every character we write or type is a link to the past. 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 @ 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, Vladmir 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 idiosyncratic 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.
 
Review- I enjoyed parts of this book hugely and I struggled to read others parts. That was because of the very scholarly tone of the book. The tone is not inappropriate but it made some chapters harder to read than others. But at times it makes the overall narrative drag. Some chapters like the one on the Interrobang were clever, funny, and very interesting. But then others like about the Dash were not. I think that part of the problem was I felt that Houston was going off on a tanget. With the Dash chapter he spends most the chapter talking about early typewriters. It was important to the Dash, sort of. But in the end I was glad to get back to the much more interesting story about how some punctuation marks started and have changed over the centuries. I loved when Houston was talking and explaining about punctuation was created and the people behind it. Those were the best chapters and parts of chapters in the book. This was in general a great read and I am curious to see where Houston is going next because I will read his next book.
 
I give this book a Five out of Five stars. I get nothing for my review and I borrowed this book from my local library.