Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Shady Characters, by Keith Houston

9781846146473This book was a very welcome Christmas present from a friend who knows I have a taste for typography and who gave me another favourite on my bookshelves, Just My Type, by Simon Garfield. Shady Characters is a sort of field guide to some of the rarer and more exotic typographic creatures, and as I expected I found it most enjoyable. Indeed it is a valuable complement to Garfield, taking a fascination with the marks on paper I as a lifelong reader have spent so much time deciphering into the punctuation marks that make reading, aloud or silently, possible at all.

The ‘shady characters’ at the heart of the book are some of the rarer marks we see in text, but the history of punctuation, common or rare, is story of the act of reading itself, and of the evolution of aids to enable an endless stream of letters and words to resolve themselves into sense. I hadn’t paid much attention to ancient reading and writing before, and so the overview of how alphabetic text was written from the beginning held some surprises for me. For instance, I knew that early alphabetic script was short on spaces between words, pauses between sentences and gaps between paragraphs – but I had no idea that there is an early writing style, Boustrophedon, where letters forming words are written in a continuous stream that runs from right to left, then left to right, then right to left, and so on. Even when lines of text had settled down in one direction only, leaving space between words was a later innovation. The consequence of a lack of visual guidance, says Houston, was that reading becomes deciphering, and generally achieved by declaiming aloud the words as they emerged from the mass of letters. Then rudimentary symbols and marks started to appear, not to help the silent reader but the declaimer, or in the case of drama, declaimers. These marks gradually resolved themselves into more or less systematic marks, by the time manuscript-writing conventions began to develop in the Common Era, standardisation mostly driven by the need to make Christian scriptures intelligible. This is an enjoyably succinct insight into the development of writing and reading, and the appearance of text that we take for granted now.

The book is a series of essays each with the starting point of a typographic oddity. Some are new to the scene, and more or less successful in taking root, most though are rooted in the past of manuscripts, and represent the archaeological traces in modern typography of the work of medieval and earlier scribes. The heroes of this book whose biographies we read are the likes of the Ampersand, the Pilcrow, the Hyphen, the Dash in all its subtle forms, the Octothorpe (aka Hash – no, me neither), the @ character that doesn’t seem to have a proper name, and the lovely little family of symbols for footnotes, headed by the Asterisk and the Dagger. Modern intrusions come in the guise of the Interrobang, which, despite the spirited case made for it here has never caught on, and the frankly doomed attempts to introduce a symbol and/or a font for Irony or Sarcasm (Sartalics, anyone?). Fabulous idea, but really, what would be the point? Ironists would lose all their fun.

All the essays are entertaining, and as well as giving the history of the character in question, each tells some of the human stories of their development and their incorporation into our reading lives. The Coelocanth of the typographic zoo is the Pilcrow, the character that starts off the exploration of writing styles and conventions and how they emerged in the age of print. It is an early example of the emergence of the Paragraph: in medieval manuscripts a gap was left in the written text that the rubricator would then fill with a character that derived from K then C for Caput, the head of a new argument. Later on, the gap would be there but would not be filled, and so evolved into the indent at the start of the paragraph. The Pilcrow then died, but has come back to life in the 20th century, if we turn on the hidden characters feature in Microsoft Word, when once again it takes its place marking the break between paragraphs.

I think my favourite chapters of all are those that cover the humble Hyphen, used paradoxically both to join words and to split words across line ends, and the Dash in all its subtle variants. The treatment of the Hyphen contains a lively account of the compositor’s art, from the days of handpress to the weird hybrid world of mechanised and manual skill need to justify a column of type on a Linotype or Monotype machine. The chapter on the Dash is most entertaining, reminding us that there is not just one dash (as computer keyboards would have us believe), but a whole typographic family of them: the en dash, the em dash, the minus sign being just a few. All in danger of resolving into a single en dash/minus sign keystroke, until the designers of MS Word (yes, again, they get praise where it is due) made its autocorrection place an em dash where it should be as punctuation. But my greatest delight was to be reminded of the most exotic form of dash – the elongated version that can be found scattered all over the most daring works in the 17th and 18th centuries, attempting to hide a dirty word or a libelled person like an inadequately wispy piece of drapery.

No time to speak at length about the chapters on the manicule, the pointing finger, some of which I too have seen in the wild in medieval manuscripts and which is well worth reviving today; and the reminder of the wonderful family of footnote markers – the asterisk, the dagger, the double dagger or deisis, the series mark, the pilcrow and the double line, in reliable sequence. Little letters or numbers are so dull in comparison. Houston adds a witty footnote on the first page of this chapter:

* In honor of their role as footnote reference marks I plan to fill this chapter with numerous lengthy and entirely tangential footnotes so as to take full advantage.

And he does.

More puzzling is the chapter on the now ubiquitous Hash symbol. Houston traces its obscure history from the manuscript era to its adoption for telecomms keypads by Bell Labs, and its naming as the Octothorpe. Well, that was news to me. He seems to contend that Twitter appropriated the octothorpe to use for the hashtag – and yet, my memory extends back pre-Twitter, and I am certain that a) I only ever knew the symbol # as Hash and b) never had any clue its name was Octothorpe. Rather odd, but I love the name!

Modern innovations such as the Interrobang, a single character to use for simultaneous surprise and query (?!), and Irony points do not seem to have got a true foothold in modern typography or writing style, but the chapters do enable Houston to tell some typographic tall tales, and celebrate some heroes. Houston is an old-fashioned amateur explorer in this respect, honouring those who have blazed his trail.

As befits a book about the wilder shores of typography, its design and production make it a thing of beauty. It is typset with scrupulous elegance, and makes full use of the exotic wild punctuation marks it celebrates, many of them in red as if a modern rubricator has gone through the text. Footnotes are copious wild and anecdotal digressions; there are numerous references, so that the end notes and index at the back take up almost a quarter of the book. There is a handy list of the different characters and their names, omitting only a shy favourite of mine, the || (that’s the nearest I can render it), whose name I therefore still do not know. The author is from the US, and the book was published there first, hence the odd instance of US spelling that seems to have escaped. All in all, it is a book that is a pleasure to hold, a delight to the eye, and a dose of enlightenment to those who love to read and are curious to know how text has come to look and behave the way it does in our era.

Shady Characters, by Keith Houston. London: Particular Books, 2013. 352pp
ISBN 13: 9781846146473
The author’s rather beautiful website, which gives a good idea of the look and feel of the book, is HERE.

3 comments on “Shady Characters, by Keith Houston

  1. Rhoda Baxter
    January 22, 2014

    I know a typography geek who would love this. I shall make a note. Thanks!

  2. Jackie
    January 23, 2014

    This was a terrific review of a book that sounds thoroughly enjoyable. The subject is fascinating and your enthusiasm makes me want to scamper out and grab it off the shelf.
    I think I like the artistry of typography and this book would really delve into that, along with the historical backgrounds. The author’s humor makes it sound very entertaining as well and I like the pun of the title. Thanks for highlighting this book and not letting ti be overlooked.

  3. Kate
    January 24, 2014

    I do like the idea of a coelocanth of typography!

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This entry was posted on January 22, 2014 by in Entries by Hilary, Non fiction: language, Non-fiction: graphic and tagged , , , , , .



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