Available in both hardcover and digital formats.
If Eats, Shoots & Leaves whetted your appetite on the subject of punctuation, then you have a treat in store. Shady Characters 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 my final comment on his book is #awesome.
Make no mistake: this is a book of secrets. With zeal and rigor, Keith Houston cracks open the &, the #, the † and more — all the little matryoshka dolls of meaning that make writing work. Inside, we meet novelists, publishers, scholars and scribes; we range from ancient Greeks to hashtagged tweets; and we see the weird and wonderful foundations of the most successful technology of all time. By which I mean, of course: this. These marks and scribbles. Honestly, it gets almost theological: how many stories can you fit on the head of a †? The answer — and the stories — will surprise you.
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.
For fans of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, this bestiary of lesser-known punctuation marks is a wonder.
More than a mere catalog of curious trivia, it’s an absolutely fascinating blend of history, design, sociology, and cultural poetics — highly recommended.
This book has more in common with Malcolm Gladwell than with standard history writing.
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. The book is often engrossing… An unusual triumph of the human ability to find exaltation in the mundane.
Engaging typographical journeys […] Houston brings to life a history of ingenuity and imagination.
Punctuation is not a mere ornament or a curiosity — it is essential, and we need to know about it. Keith Houston’s history is entertaining and readable.
[S]cholarly, highly readable and, on some deeper level, slightly deranged.
[W]ritten in a jaunty tone, laced with geeky relish. ★ ★ ★ ★