Book Review: Shady Characters by Keith Houston

Posted 23 October, 2017 by Alicia in Book Review / 0 Comments  


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 (†)–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.

my review

This was an undeniably entertaining book. Well, I say entertaining, but a better word is probably interesting. It’s difficult to put down, and I hardly ever say that about non-fiction. It is probably the most heavily-researched book I have read, at least in terms of references. There are hundreds. They take up exactly seventy pages of the book. But Houston manages to weave them all together into a captivating and comprehensive history of punctuation. The accompanying pictures are indispensable, although they do seem to break up the narrative a bit too often to make for a perfectly smooth reading experience. Another thing is that sometimes the narrative goes back and forth in chronology—we’ll start with ancient history, talk about modern usage for a bit, and then go back to history. It only happened a couple times but that was often enough for me to take notice. It wasn’t impossible to keep straight, though, and it helped that the histories were often interwoven with those of other characters or symbols. There were frequent references to other sections, which were helpful even though I did read the whole thing straight through (instead of as a reference book).

I learned a ton in this book and although most of it isn’t practical knowledge by any means, it’s fascinating and so nice to have in a single tome. And of course I’ll always be wondering about the characters left out.

This review was originally posted on my book blog. You can find the book on Goodreads and Amazon.



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