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Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks [Kindle Edition]

Keith Houston
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)

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Book Description

“An absolutely fascinating blend of history, design, sociology, and cultural poetics—highly recommended.”—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

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 at 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, Vladimir 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 diverse 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.

Editorial Reviews


“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 and my final comment on his book is #awesome.” (Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad)

“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.” (Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore)

“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 Eat's, Shoots, and Leaves, this bestiary of lesser-known punctuation marks is a wonder.” (Publishers Weekly)

About the Author

Keith Houston is the creator of the Shady Characters blog. He and his wife live in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Product Details

  • File Size: 11213 KB
  • Print Length: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (September 17, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00CF2M96E
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #173,265 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't buy this book for Kindle October 8, 2013
By Dagmar
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The nonstandard characters used in the book render as microscopic; I can't find a fix for this, and it happens both on the Kindle Paperwhite and the Kindle Android app. The parts of the book that I can read are interesting, but I'm missing a lot with the rendering deficiency. Frankly I'm a bit shocked that a publisher would let this go to market in this condition. Perhaps the paper version is more legible.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lots of sunshine on a shady history October 2, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Not that long ago, I was reading an edition of a Shakespeare play that retained the original formatting. I stared at the punctuation and thought how very modern it was, and just as I was reminded that I've often wondered where we get these marks we use every day, along came Keith Houston with this ray of sunshine called Shady Characters. I ordered it instantly and had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, it is hands down informative, earnest, witty, well-produced and so very reassuringly human in this digital age.

Houston has selected the pilcrow (that backward P for paragraph), "commercial at" (@), octothorpe (pound or hash sign), ampersand, asterisk, dagger, hyphen, manicule (pointing hand), quotation marks, the interrobang (question mark overlaid with an exclamation mark) and marks to indicate irony and sarcasm. The earliest symbols show up with the Greeks and Romans; turning points include the rise of Christianity, the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press, and, more recently, the typewriter. Computers and the internet are respectful latecomers to the party.

Houston is a detective who digs for hard evidence. Typographical legends persist and he insists on finding the truth. Assumptions are dashed. His end notes and bibliography reveal that he shifted through a lot of dry, not to mention dusty, texts in search of his answers and he has done a terrific job of articulating the information. He sustains a vibrant energy to the last page. The hardcover book is attractively produced with the symbols rendered in red ink.

This is Houston's first book. On the strength of it, I'll sign up for his next, whatever it is.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quirky topic but well written. October 13, 2013
By Gizmo
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Deceptively interesting book. Good blend of history, both ancient and newer. Good read. I first hear about the book in the New York Times which lead me to read his blog, where I got hooked. I'd encourage people to go to the shady characters blog to read essentially the entire first chapter to see what you think.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but avoid digital versions November 28, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Many punctuation marks turn out to have a surprisingly long and, for the few of us fascinated by such things, interesting history. The book does a nice job of telling it. The style is brief, breezy, and popularized, though it does make reference to sources.

Some of the history of punctuation involves historical trivia only distantly related to it but that the author either couldn't bear to leave out or needed to throw in in order to expand an otherwise slender volume. His knowledge of those other things, both ancient and modern, is not always as sure as his understanding of punctuation, and sometimes that shows.

Another review mentions that non-standard characters are "microscopic" on Kindle and Android platforms. I can report that they are on the iPad as well.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have both intense and obscure interests. It sometimes seems like an author is writing for an audience consisting of just me. It's common for a book I love and pay full price for, to be doomed to the buck-a-book-tables. My wife would prefer that I wait for a $25 book to be marked down to $1, but that's not how I work.

I'm a type geek and I find information entertaining. I already knew some of what's in this book, but the new details are delightful and delicious. If you share my enthusiasm for pilcrows, octothorps, ampersands, interrobangs and em dashes, buy this book.

One of my contributions: The One Buck Indie Author's Type Book (Silver Sands Publishing Series)
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, elegantly written, and informative September 20, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Buy and read this guy's book. It is incredibly entertaining and elegantly written. Just a pure joy to read. Not only does he address punctuation marks, but history and culture as well. As I have read this book, I have frequently reread passages--not because they are confusing, but just to admire a turn of phrase and to again smile in delight.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keith Houston Brings Punctuation to Life January 18, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Shady Characters was a truly interesting history of how some punctuation got its start and how it is used today.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What, you say, is a pilcrow January 5, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
OK, maybe you need to be a little bit weird, have too much time on your hands, or be some sort of a linguist to REALLY appreciate this book. Or, perhaps just curious about where those funny looking and often familiar punctuation marks came from? That was me. This is an easy and interesting read about punctuation marks and typographic conventions old, new, and defunct. Why, you'll even learn why the first lines of a printed paragraph are indented. I thoroughly enjoyed this little book because I enjoy writing and reading and it hit the proverbial spot in my brain that kept asking how all those so-familiar dots, dashes, curleyques, and the like, came to be. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: That backwards capital P shown on the image for the cover of the book is a pilcrow. Did ya know that?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Weirdly entertaining.
Published 1 day ago by Gwen Crane
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Amazingly entertaining considering the subject matter!
Published 6 days ago by Jason Grimaldi
4.0 out of 5 stars Pound Sign, Number Symbol, Hash Mark, or Octothorpe, Which be Ye?
This book answered the questions I've always had about from where all these punctuation signs and symbols came. Read more
Published 29 days ago by Jadaros
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read, well worth the price. However, the book is more for...
Arrived on time. This is an interesting read, more for trivial pursuit than anything else.
Published 1 month ago by W.L. Emery
3.0 out of 5 stars I will eventually get through it because I like the subject
It's mildly interesting but not as gripping as some books on typography. I will eventually get through it because I like the subject.
Published 1 month ago by L. Cullen
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great and fast shipping!
Published 2 months ago by Lenore Kepler
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A gift to my wife - she enjoyed it.
Published 4 months ago by Marc
3.0 out of 5 stars The sunny side of punctuation
This book is not only written by an enthusiast, it's brilliantly designed, with embossed covers, intelligent two-color printing, both footnotes and endnotes smartly used and... Read more
Published 5 months ago by John D Cooper
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating survey of pilcrows, interrobangs, octothorpes, and other...
Most of us, when reading and writing, use and mentally process a multitude of typographical symbols without thinking about them, even though we probably do not know the names for... Read more
Published 5 months ago by R. M. Peterson
4.0 out of 5 stars A terrific book for the typo-geek
Even most readers and those who make a living at different aspects of writing don't really pay much attention to punctuation, beyond knowing vaguely where to stick the commas. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Michael K. Smith
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