Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

Keith Houston (Author)


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.

Product Details

$18.95  $17.43
W. W. Norton & Company
Publish Date
October 20, 2014
6.09 X 0.9 X 8.24 inches | 0.9 pounds
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About the Author

Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters and the founder of He lives in London.


Funny, surprising, and, of course, geeky.--Michael D. Schaffer and John Timpane
Fascinating.--Rob Kyff
Make no mistake: this is a book of secrets. With zeal and rigor, Keith Houston cracks open the &, the #, the + and more--all the little matryoshka dolls of meaning that make writing work. Inside, we meet novelists, publishers, scholars and scribes; we range from ancient Greeks to hashtagged tweets; and we see the weird and wonderful foundations of the most successful technology of all time.--Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Might make you look at books... in an entirely new way.--Andrew Robinson a tireless researcher and an amiable teacher.--Jan Gardner
A pleasurable contribution to type history, particularly for readers who haven't considered the ampersand in any detail.--Carl W. Scarbrough