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

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  998 Ratings  ·  204 Reviews
From ancient Greece to the Internet—via the Renaissance, Gutenberg, and Madison Avenue—Shady Characters exposes the secret history of punctuation.

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
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published September 24th 2013 by W. W. Norton Company
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Rating details
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Dustin Kurtz
Aug 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
Impossible to read this one and not find yourself exhausting friendships with a million "did you know ...?" conversations about, say, the manicule or the ampersand. Impossible, that is, if you have friends. Which I don't. At least, not anymore. A good book, is the point.
Nov 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, reviewed
This book was both a joy to read and quite enlightening. Not only was the writing engaging, but it did a wonderful job integrating the story of these various symbols into the context of the wider world of human affairs. While certainly intended for a popular audience, Houston took his task very seriously, drawing upon an enormous range of sources to tell the story of these symbols to the tune of ~67 pages of references. Houston tells the history of these symbols in a very economical way, not fal ...more
May 01, 2016 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: font/typography nerds & lovers of arcane trivia
Shelves: 2016
A book for font/typography/punctuation nerds. The book jumps around through history, trying to pinpoint the origin of various marks. Some chapters succeed better than others. Overall, somewhat interesting, but probably of most interest to those that already have an interest in (or obsession with) typographical marks. Or maybe of interest if you'll be appearing on Jeopardy & need some additional arcane trivia at your fingertips.
Emma Sea
When I started this book I was confident in my use of hyphens and en- and em- dashes. Having finished it, I have no idea what to do with the seven (!) current punctuation marks comprising horizontal lines.

Jun 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Another great Goodreads first reads win!

I think I am rather naive when it comes to history, or I lack imagination. Mostly, I am always taken by surprise to discover that writing in the computer age or the internet age, or whatever age you want to call this, has many strong ties with the past. And by "the past" I mean, like, 5th-century-and-before past. As an editor, I usually write and edit with the "hidden characters" on. My screen is always sprinkled with tiny dots floating in midair between w
Feb 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018, language, nonfiction
I don’t even know where to start with how much I loved this book. I haven’t crushed so hard on a writer since my brother-in-law force-lent me A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
With 68 pages of endnotes, his writing brings to mind the journal articles I have to read for grad school, but unlike the dry majority of these offerings, Houston’s scholarly writing is incredibly fun to read.
I smiled so much as I read this. I wish I’d read it on my kindle, because there would have been loads of
Kristen Smith
Jul 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads
This book was simply wonderful, but I must add a caveat, it is not a book for the faint of heart. If you love history, learning new information about the world around you, love trivia, and were someone who often wondered what that little paragraph sign was in word documents then you will enjoy this book very much. But I warn you - right from the outset, you will start walking around spouting off tidbits of information and saying words like pilcrow and folks will wonder about you. Keith Houston i ...more
Plot: A
Writing: A
Vocabulary: A+
Level: Easy
Rating: G
Worldview: descriptive

I expected to be bored if somewhat enlightened about the family tree of punctuation. To my surprise, this engaging rabbit trail through history ended up being one of the best books I've read all year! Author Keith Houston presents scholarly material with a conversational tone accessible even to school-age readers. Along the way he chronicles the history of writing and how technology made an impact. But the real-life anecdot
On the plus side, I learned why paragraphs are indented--and what used to occupy that space. On the minus side, the author padded every point with irrelevancies or distractions. Trying to be funny, he often came off as silly.

In sum, I learned a lot. But it's not a great read; certainly nowhere near "Confessions of a Comma Queen."
Steven Williams
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book takes a look at certain symbols used in punctuation and their typographical uses. It is by no means an exhaustive account of all such symbols. It concentrates on a small selection in comparison with all the symbols currently in use. I feel he selected his “shady characters” based on what he found to be the most interesting as far as their invention, history, and uses.

Some of the characters were: the pilcrow (¶) which today is mainly found in word processor programs when you click on t
Derek Baldwin
Jul 02, 2014 rated it it was ok
Not bad by any means but halfway through I felt that I'd learned as much as I was ever likely to want to know about the subject and decided to end it there. So I will never find out the history of the maniscule.
Jun 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads, reviewed

orators needed some indication of where to, at least, take a breath. So began the use of punctuation and the development of its rules.

The first two sentences of this review shows a very early form of writing, actually the all upper case primarily in the Greek because that was the only case they had
Spencer Borup
Oct 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This was, to be honest, my first enthusiastic foray into nonfiction. AND I LOVED EVERY SECOND OF IT.

SHADY CHARACTERS is a meticulously researched and cuttingly sharp look at the evolution of peculiar symbols like the pilcrow, @ symbol, hashtag (octothorpe), & "quotation marks."*

*among others.

However, as the author Keith Houston discovered in the afterword, this book is really more of an exploration of the development of written language and its stylizing and the evolution of printing. Which
Nov 28, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Serious fun. Serious fun. Very dorky, yes, but a great read. I couldn't put this book down. Now I know what to call the "paragraph sign," the "pound sign" and the "pointing hand" (pilcrow, octothorpe, and manicule, respectively) and why they are what they are. A whole chapter on the hyphen, and a separate one on the dash! Great times! Plus an explanation of linotype and the horrors of optical typesetting! Read this, and you will understand about half the Auto-Correct settings in your word proces ...more
Aug 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: language
This is a nifty little book. Especially if you are a nerd like me. Each chapter covers a punctuation mark. The book is designed to be read in any order and the chapters are pretty short, around ten pages. Each chapter explains a bit about the mark and then goes through its history from ancient through modern times. I found this to be an interesting read and recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the history of language and/or writing.
Nov 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“[Erasmus] opined that the conscientious reader should ‘observe occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, cleverly contrived or well adapted arguments, brilliant flashes of style, adages, example, and pithy remarks worth memorizing,’ and that ‘such passages should be marked by an appropriate little sign.’”

I read this delightful book on my phone, so the design of my marginalia is sadly lacking, and little that I write is ever “appropriate,” anyway. However, I am thinking of aurochs
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Niby o drobiazgach, ale pełna wiedzy. Starannie udokumentowana, erudycyjna książka rzucająca snopy iskier na zwykle pozostające w cieniu elementy typografii i sztuki wydawniczej oraz ich nie zawsze oczywistą i jasną historię.

Dodatkowa gwiazdka za bardzo staranne polskie wydanie.
Aug 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Splendid little book, deeply researched and referenced - and it's always refreshing to read an author who's prepared to say "lots of cute theories, but this remains origin unknown".
Czuję się bogatsza w wiedzę typograficzno-paleograficzną. I chcę więcej.
Jun 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015
This is a fascinating non-fiction book about several of the ordinary (and not-so-ordinary) punctuation marks and symbols that are in more or less common use every day. My husband observed that he knew I would love the book, as I have a fondness for minutiae.

After a short introduction, the author gives us chapters on the Pilcrow (¶), which is used to introduce paragraphs (especially now, in the guts of various word-processing programs), the Interrobang (‽), which is used to indicate both an excla
Mark Schlatter
Nov 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
So this was simply a work of sheer delight... Houston could have written twice as much, and I believe I would have been just as enthralled.

What makes the book work is that while the subject is punctuation marks, Houston places his discussion in the context of cultural history and changes in writing and printing technology. A great example is his discussion of marginal marks (e.g., the manicule or pointing hand). Houston doesn't just talk about the development of the manicule and its variants ---
Vivek Tejuja
Oct 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
“Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and other Typographical Curiosities” was one of the most unique reads this month for me. I have never come across a book like this before, so I may be thought that it was not for me. However, was proved wrong half-way into it. “Shady Characters” as the name suggests is about characters that we often forget or tend to overlook when it comes to typography or fonts or as part of text.

Keith Houston’s book is about symbols and punctuation and characters th
Feb 26, 2016 rated it liked it
3.5 Stars. Very interesting! Would recommend to anyone who enjoys learning about the history of writing, the book, manuscripts, and early days of print. I was surprised at how little consideration I'd given to a lot of punctuation before reading this book, so it definitely gave me a new perspective to the history and evolution of these characters and how they are (and were) used.

I found the delving into more historical punctuation/uses more interesting than some of the more "recent" development
Karen Chung
Apr 15, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In fact I originally got this book because it cites a survey I did on the @ sign many a year ago:

but it ended up being a fascinating and surprisingly dense account of the development of certain English punctuation conventions. The chapter on proposals of ways to mark irony and sarcasm was an unexpected bonus - I recently wrote two articles (in Chinese) on the use of sarcasm in English, directed at Chinese-speaking English learners. I discovered in the cour
Barbara Williams
Are you a naturally curious person? Do you wonder why things are the way things are, like why Thanksgiving is on the last Thursday of November? Why soccer is called football everywhere but the US? Why we continue to elect the same inefficient people to congress (do we just hate progress?!?!)

Then this book is for you.

No seriously, I mean it.

You should start reading it now.

It answers questions like:

Did you ever wonder why the hashtag/pound key/number sign has so many names? Where did it come fr
Dec 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Houston provides the history of lesser-used punctuation marks: the pilcrow (the "paragraph" sign), interrobang (question mark + exclamation point), octothorpe (#), ampersand (&), @ symbol, asterisk * and dagger, hyphen and dash (did you know there is a difference among em dashes, en dashes, minus signs, and hyphens?), manicule (pointing hand), quotation marks, and irony/sarcasm. Typography lovers, grammar enthusiasts, and word aficionados will enjoy this book.

P.S. It is an excellent compani
Jan 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book was fantastic in pretty much every way. There's so many neat little facts that you'll be slipping "did you know..." into all your conversations! I mean, who won't love a juicy little tidbit about "That mark that looks like a backward P in Microsoft word"? You'll be spouting facts about the manicule, the ampersand, all the dashes. The tone is light and conversational, not weighty and dry... which it very easily could have been. All in all, a definite quick read that I'd not hesitate to ...more
Jan 05, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014
What a fascinating book on the origins of punctuation, symbols and typographical marks. The author goes way back to the beginning of writing and tells why and how these marks came into existence and if their meanings have change in the modern world. I did not read this word for word, but it was fun to peruse through each chapter. Each chapter is dedicated to specific mark.
Jul 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013, arc, july
Charming and full of the most interesting stories, not just about punctuation, but about ARPANET, and the Romans, and the library of Alexandra, and the invention of printing, and the revolution of typewriters... leave by your bedside and dip in and out. Completely enjoyable.
Dec 10, 2014 rated it it was ok
An interesting subject, but a bit of a dry read, so much so that halfway through I lost interest and stopped reading in the middle of chapter on the manicule. Maybe I'll pick it up again some day, but for now I've had enough.
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