November 15, 2013

Keith Houston's Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (Book Review)

I found this picture of an interrobang on John Green's tumblr!

Keith Houston's Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks is an entertaining history of things nearly everyone uses daily, but few of us think about. Why, for example, are paragraphs often indented? Why is the @ symbol used in e-mail addresses? Why does # have so many different names (including hashtag, pound sign and octothorpe)? When did quotation marks first appear in written history?

Houston answers these and other questions, devoting a chapter each to the history of various punctuation and typographical marks: such as the pilcrow (¶), the asterisk (*) and the dash (-). He traces their origins from ancient Greek and Latin, through the monks and scholars of the Middle Ages, the standardization of Gutenberg's printing press and the limitation of the typewriter's keyboard size--which affected the characters that would survive into modern usage.

Shady Characters is crammed with delightful trivia--like the fact that the ampersand (&) started life as Pompeiian graffiti, or that pound is abbreviated lb. because it derives from the Latin expression libra pondo (a pound in weight), or that the name of the interrobang, which combines the question mark and exclamation point in a single symbol, came out of a magazine contest in the 1960s. 

Full of illustrations ranging from images of ancient manuscripts to typewriter keyboards and contemporary typefaces, Shady Characters is an engaging mix of grammar and typography that fans of etymology, history and graphic design can all enjoy.

As I mentioned a few months ago, I really, really liked Shady Characters! I think it would make a great Christmas gift for the nonfiction lovers in your life. And, if you're anything like me, you won't be able to resist hashtagging a few tweets with #octothorpe.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? Absolutely!

Who wants to help me bring the interrobang back?!*

*See how useful a combined question/exclamation can be?!

I originally wrote most of this review for Shelf Awareness. You should subscribe to their newsletter for awesome book reviews twice weekly. And this post contains Amazon affiliate links, thanks for supporting Quirky Bookworm!