Book reviews / Non fiction

Book review: Sh@dy Charac†ers

This was a very fun and easy read. As you might have inferred from the title, Sh@dy Charac†ers is about typographical symbols. It plumbs the depths of history and hearsay to get to the bottom of how and why some of these symbols came into being.

They range from the very familiar @ symbol to the not so familiar history of sarcasm and irony marks (they never really caught on) or the interrobang 

Surprisingly, the Library of Alexandria turns up more often than not in the early history of most of the punctuation marks. Though, as you can imagine, there are always medieval scribes (often lazy medieval scribes) who change the original forms and functions over time.

The BEST thing in the entire book (best for given value of how much you enjoy Reformation history) was in the chapter on the asterisk * and obelus †. Martin Luther, which many people might know, stapled his 96 theses to the church door to protest indulgences. However, Johannes Eck disagreed with his arguments and countered with his Obelisci (or obelisks). Luther then later refuted Eck with his Asterisci.

At the time, the obelus was used to mark arguments as false, where the asterisk was used to highlight defects in reasoning. I mean, who doesn’t love theological infighting using bloody punctuation. Seriously, it is the best.

The only danger I can imagine from reading this book is that you will be annoyed when pub quizzes use apocryphal histories of punctuation for questions. There’s lots of assumptions about the history of various bits of punctuation and it will really fucking annoy you when this is passed off as correct in a pub quiz.

The main thing I learned is that I can’t possibly care about em or en dashes. I’m solidly in the camp of the hyphen-minus (basically the standard – on the keyboard). IT’S JUST A BLOODY DASH. HOW CAN YOU EVEN TELL HOW BIG IT IS MOST OF THE TIME.

Typographers have a lot of time on their hands is all I’m saying. And this book will introduce you to a lot of them through time – and they all come across as slightly bonkers. But enjoyably bonkers.

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