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Review | Shady Characters By Keith Houston

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on September 30, 2013

Shady Characters By Keith Houston

ISBN-13: 9780393064421
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication date: 9/24/2013
Pages: 340

Marginalia have been part of gratifying reading experiences since Homer’s Greece. Scribbles, notes and comments in the margins of texts have been punctuated by conventional little marks made by readers. And those marks have come in and out of favor over the history of writing.

Author Keith Houston tells the unusual stories behind some of the most inspired of these marginalia ornaments in his new book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks.

This engrossing book on punctuation includes chapters on the pilcrow, the interrobang, the asterisk and the @ symbol, which began as a shorthand notation for the word at and evolved with computer networks to accompany email addresses and, more recently, Twitter usernames.

Houston links interesting bits of punctuation lore to an edifying history of print. If the most complete history is in the chapter on the octothorpe, then the most satisfying has to be in the chapter on the manicule (☞).

Now looked upon as novelty or vintage typography, instances of the manicule first appeared during the 11th and 12th centuries. Houston explains how a typical reader would have spent a great deal of time and money in a book buying transaction. “Books were not so much bought as project-managed into existence,” he writes.

“Having thus shepherded a book through its creation—selecting its contents, directing its illumination and binding; perhaps even having painstakingly copied it out in the first place—and having spent a princely sum in doing so, the Renaissance reader was invested in their book in a way quite unlike the modern consumer. It was second nature for a book’s owner to brand it, to annotate and embellish it as they read; to underline pithy phrases and fill the margins with notes.”

A manicule was inked in the margin by a reader to punctuate memorable words, arguments or remarks and became an ingrained part of the literate habit.

According to Houston, the 14th century Italian scholar Petrarch would draw a manicule with a thumb and five fingers. Some manicules would sport flowing sleeves or lace-trimmed cuffs, which offered convenient spaces for notes. The highly personal nature of the manicule provided for a variety of names, including a hand, hand director, pointing hand, pointing finger, pointer, digit, index or indicator.

“The key to the manicule—the thing that sets it apart from the letters, numbers and punctuation that make up the contents of today’s average page—is its conspicuous anthropomorphism. It is difficult to disguise a pointing hand as anything else and that is precisely what the manicule represented in the late medieval period. It depicted the reader’s hand on the page, a freeze-framed projection of the index finger following the eye as it lingered on a passage of interest or flicked back and forth between a marginal note and the text itself.”

Shady Characters by Keith Houston is a highly worthwhile read and a fascinating look at the stories behind unusual punctuation marks.

Category: Nonfiction, Reference

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