Shady Characters, the Book

The Shady Characters paperback cover Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks, illustrated with over seventy images, is published in North America by W. W. Norton. It is published in the UK by Particular Books as Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and Other Typographical Curiosities.

In paperback
Get the paperback in the USA from, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound or Powell’s. In the rest of the world, order from, The Book Depository or Waterstones (whose website is temporarily unavailable).
In hardcover
Order the hardcover in the USA from, Indiebound or Powell’s. In the rest of the world, order from, The Book Depository or Waterstones.
For e-book readers
Get Shady Characters for your Nook at Barnes & Noble; for your iPhone or iPad at iTunes; for your Kindle at Amazon (USA) or Amazon (UK); and in ePub format at Waterstones (UK).
The Shady Characters hardback  cover Praise for Shady Characters:

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.

Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

The Shady Characters UK book cover

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.

Constance Hale, author of Vex, Hex, Smash and Smooch and Sin and Syntax

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.

Library Journal

The Shady Characters UK paperback cover

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. ★ ★ ★ ★

Questions about the book? Leave a comment below, or get in touch via the Contact page. As with any book, some errors slip through the cracks before publication; read about errata here.


  1. Ype Kingma
    Posted December 31, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Today (the last day of 2013) I got my copy of “Shady Characters, The Book” & what a book it is! The way this book is designed & produced is the ultimate antidote to the e-book. I got mine with the red dustjacket, which has embossed lettering. How chic. What a pleasure to hold this book & flip the pages. So far I have read Chapter 6 (Asteriks & Dagger). I enjoy the Hoeffler Text lettering & the layout of the whole book.
    I read a number of entries online, but the book is even better!

    • Keith Houston
      Posted January 4, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Ype — thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m very glad you enjoyed the book! The excellent interior design was by Judith Abbate.

  2. Jamsheed
    Posted April 10, 2014 at 4:14 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi! Wanted to tell you that I just got your book and started reading it. And I love it! Am mentally cheering on the interrobang to conquer the realms of typography. Cheers!


    • Keith Houston
      Posted April 10, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Jamsheed — I’m very glad you’re enjoying the book! Thank you for the comment. Do let me know if you come across the interrobang in the wild!

4 Trackbacks

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    […] I dive into my review for Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and other Typographical Curiosities (The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks is the slightly more […]

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