Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Monster Manual of Style

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston, W.W.Norton & Company.

The pilcrow. The octothorpe. The manicule. No, these are not creatures rejected from the 5th Edition Monstrous Manual, but rather occupants of font libraries, keyboards, old manuscripts, and software programs. Stuff that you may have seen but didn't know it had a name. These creations are the supporting cast of the alphabet, those symbols that did not make the cut for traditional A to Zed, but have survived in a odd symbiotic relationship, a typographic twilight zone, their fortunes rising and falling over time.

The pilcrow is the paragraph marker. Yeah, the one that looks like a backwards "P" mated with a "J" and shows up invisibly in your files to mark the end of the paragraph. The manicule is the old-timey hand that points at stuff and reminds you of the signs from a hundred years ago. The octothorpe is what us old folks used to call the "pound-sign" or the "numbers-sign" but you kids today call the hashtag. Shady Characters is full of them, along with the dash, the hyphen, the quotation marks, the @ sign, the asterisk, and the dagger (also called an obelisk, which makes me wonder about the true origins of Asterix et Obelix). And it is a cool guided tour through the lower planes of typography.

What I like about this book (and about books of this type) is that it is committed to following the development of a concept through time, and showing that the path is neither straight nor narrow. Our typography, like just about everything else, is a rugby scrum of competing concepts which are introduced, flourish, battle it out, are forgotten, and then show up in another context entirely,. Houston's material loops back through history several times, dealing with the Library of Alexandria, Roman (upper case), Carolingian Minuscule (lower case), glossaries, monks, movable type, linotype machines, unicode, and of course in the Internet. Things which work well for one domain may not make the jump to the next, and concepts which were left fallow suddenly see a renewed existence (your pilcrow, replaced by the empty tab at the start of the paragraph, now lurks in the bowels of that copy of Microsoft Word).

Houston keeps the story moving forward, while footnoting extensively. The book itself in 250 pages long, with an additional 70 pages of notes as every line demands a reference to its origins. It is that amazing combination of deeply researched and accessible at the same time.

The piece that I come away with is how we have treated text differently over time. In the time of the Greeks, writing was a memory device, where you knew the story and the text existed (often without punctuation or vowels, or spaces between words) as a prompt. In the time of illuminated manuscripts, the glossed notations took a life of their own, such that a book was expected to be marked up, corrected, and evolved. Book ownership indicated ability and willingness to argue with it. The tyranny of cold type forced another change and established the arbiters of what would and would not make it into typeface. And so to the present, where the Internet has produced its own solution to the often-attempted but never-delivered sarcasm symbol.

If you have a love of punctuation and iconography, this is a great book to move through, keeping to its various subjects but throwing open doors to new concepts and parts of history mostly forgotten. Keith Houston maintains his own blog where he continues his research as well a promoting the text. Both book and blog are worth checking out.

More later,