Libraries are open now, that is, you can go pick up pre-ordered books. I live a little out of town, so I’m just getting my long list ready, and when the day comes to cycle a few tens of kilometres and I pick up my darlings…I shall be so ready. Until then, I’m reading what’s at home. And very overdue, it is.
I’ve dipped in and out of Keith Houston’s first book, Shady Characters (2013), so many times, but never sat and read it cover to cover. I did that over the week-end after finishing his second book on books called The Book (the review here). Hysteron-proteron like, the horse before the cart.
Shady Characters is a whirl-wind tour through thousands of years of writing and writing technology, following (almost) one mark of punctuation per chapter, exploring where it came from, and what’s quirky about it. What we did with and to it.
It’s actually not true that the marks are marks of punctuation. At least not in a medium to strict sense. It’s not a stretch of definition to call a dash a mark of punctuation, but it certainly is to categorize a manicule as one. And what about the @ sign? Or the # ? The & ? (To be fair, the subtitle of the book is the very broadly-kept The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.)
It all depends on your understanding of punctuation, of course: some might say any sign in a text that is non-alphabetical is punctuation. Well, but what about a superscript a, acting as footnote? Thus: blablaa. According to this definition, an emoji, a manicule, a number, a decorative border – all this would be punctuation. And I can see the point, and I agree. Those things punctuate the text, disrupt linearity, import otherness. But I also don’t agree.
For me, punctuation has actually to have a rhetorical or grammatical function. An exclamation mark indicates emphasis. A full stop separates sentences, so clarifies syntactic relationships. Tone, pitch, emotion. Grammatical belonging. That’s what punctuation does. A manicule doesn’t really do either of these. It draws attention to stuff. Content.
Then again, what about the paragraph sign a.k.a. pilcrow? What about the asterisk, and (oh dear) my beloved ampersand? Which is nothing but a substitute for ‘and’, right? A word. An alphabetical word.
I think pilcrow and asterisk can be “saved” by arguing
they clarify structure. And the hashtag, if thought about as Twitter-like
qualifier of tone, could make it into the emotion-punctuation-marks.
But I’ve written about this before here, and there’s no hard and fast answer. Which is A Good Thing! The moment we people agree on something it’s dead, is my experience.
Houston grapples with some really complicated processes, such as transmission of texts, concepts and practices of reading, evolving purposes of writing, technologies of writing. From scroll to book, typewriter and word processor. And his book is definitely worth reading twice, which is what I did, digging up lots of gems of information which I overlooked first time round.
Like The Book, Shady Characters is actually a bit of a hard read, not because the topic is hard (it’s just convoluted like history and culture are), but because Houston writes in such a dry enumerative way that your focus keeps slipping. Fewer facts, more meat. Upon reading it once, just making a few notes in the margin, I felt curiously under-informed. It didn’t stick. And I think that’s because…I think his writing is just not (dare I say it)…beautiful.
It’s packed, but not woven. There’s little loose story-telling, and not a lot of digging, actually, making the book both crammed and superficial. Well, what does it mean that the pilcrow disappeared from manuscripts, leaving blank space which became the re-branded paragraph indentation? What does it mean that the sign is there but not? Like he says, it’s a ‘ghost’. What does that mean? Word processors certainly still keep it, just that we don’t see it. Unless we want to. We can make all those pilcrows visible with one click. So it’s like they’re there, but not. The almost-punctuation-mark. But it is a mark if one considers space punctuation (which we do). Categorized absence. Differently-sized absences. What does it mean for a Shakespeare text that the printer would sometimes pad a line with “invisible type”, and sometimes collapse proper spacing, making blank verse appear as prose (leaving us to wonder for what those lines were intended)? What does it mean that a dash censors profanity, and we still read ‘damned’ when we see ‘d–d’? What does it mean.
A little less information, and a little more thought.
That said, there’s plenty of the former which has triggered plenty of the latter in me, including old issues:
-punctuation as aid for speaking and/or reading
-overlaps of use and inconsistencies of understanding
-our relatively conservative nature when it comes to new punctuation (we’re happier to re-purpose familiar marks than integrate completely new ones into our writing)
-our belief that punctuation somehow ought to, or does, represent the zeitgeist of a certain period. Always the current one, of course. About all of which more soon, particularly the latter. The mark of our time just now would probably be the Edvard Munch screaming emoji.
Ah, and after some scrambling and massaging of definitions, I can say with good conscience that the ampersand is a mark of punctuation. It’s a connecting conjunction, you see, so it clarifies syntactical relationships… phew. Not exactly water-tight, but who would want the sensual & kicked out of the ranks of punctuation?
Since punctuation goes together with both technologies of writing and the practice of it, I thought I need to brush up on the history of the book. Which signs we have invented when, and why, is intimately connected to the material we write on, how the text goes from mind to hand to page, how it is being read, in what form, by whom, when, to what purpose. How text is being stored.
I’ve got a long list of books on books to get through,
but started with one for the general audience, The Book, by Keith Houston
(who also wrote a book on punctuation, also for the public). I wasn’t exactly
blown away by his punctuation book for reasons I’m still trying to figure out.
I think I’m put off by the style which is both dense, as in full of
information, and loose, as in the information he is giving is not information I
think I need. Like, I don’t need to know about the minute changes of shape of
all 30 Tironian ampersands found in this one manuscript in 1357. I’m all for
detail, but the right kind of detail. There’s an Islamic saying: ‘oh God, protect
me from useless information.
So, I was a bit wary of The Book, and it didn’t
disappoint in having me disappointed even before it started. If that makes
There are four sections: the page, the text, illustrations, and form. ‘The page’ explores the history of the material of the page, that is, papyrus, parchment, and paper. ‘The text’ is about writing kinds in the first place (such as cuneiform, hieroglyphs, Greek), and technologies of printing from Gutenberg to current machine printing. ‘Illustrations’ is about that, woodcuts and engravings, and ‘the form’ (the most interesting section, I think) traces the development of medium, as it were, from scroll to codex. Oh, and binding.
Here’s what I learnt: the earliest evidence of writing comes from the Sumerians, that’s cuneiform, more than 5000 years ago (I think). Writing came from Iraq to Egypt where someone invented hieroglyphs. The question of course is what one understands of writing. If one draws pictures, or icons, to express the name of a thing, e.g. a dog to say the word dog, is that writing? If so, what kind of writing, and how does it differ from writing where the image of a dog represents a sound, such as /d/? And how does that again differ from a system of writing that does not have any pictures at all, but glyphs which only represent sound that has been assigned to them, glyphs or letters which are symbolic. The alphabet for example.
Hieroglyphs are something in between, both expressing
the thing they are showing and a sound. Ancient Egyptians would write on
scrolls from papyrus whose recipe was fiercely guarded, so that Greece and Rome
had to import papyrus from Egypt. Around 200 A.D. parchment started to replace
papyrus across the Mediterranean. It was more resilient than papyrus and one
could write on both its sides (papyrus had fibrous ridges on the back making that
impossible). Parchment also withstood changes of temperature and humidity
better. That said, of course, it was more expensive than papyrus, and took
longer to make.
Paper from linen rags entered the European market from China via Arab colonies in Spain; the first paper-making mill was opened in Andalusia in around 1150. While everything changed (the production, the looks inside a book, who read and wrote), one thing remained stable over hundreds of years, and that was the price for paper: linen seemed to always stay in short supply, so much so that even in nineteenth-century London, there was a ban on burying the dead in linen in order to save it for paper making. Only in 1850s Germany did paper from wood pulp become a thing, and would sweep away the old way of production. Paper had been made from mulberry bark in China since the fourteenth century, so it wasn’t exactly a new invention, but that’s the moment where wood pulp replaces linen on a big scale.
So much for the story of paper. The text section focussed on Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type – which is, once more, not the first time this has been invented! Chinese ingenuity, again, found, in the fourteenth century, that it was possible to print through carving each character on a wooden block which would then be put together as sentence in something like the compositor’s stick of the Renaissance. But because of the nature of Chinese writing (part symbolic, part image entity), and because of the sheer number of Chinese characters, it took as long to carve and put together the different characters as carve the entire page as one.
It’s somewhat frustrating to work one’s way through the book. Houston has plenty of detailed information, for example the name of a book seller 1300 years ago connected to some conspiracy which then turns out to be inaccurate. Perhaps it is a case of me expecting something else, but I just wasn’t interested in (apocryphal) anecdotes and exact place names and things. Perhaps it’s because Houston is more of a historian who shows and tells, and my training is as literary critic who analyses, and asks, well, but why is it this and that way. I had a sense of constant frustration, because I wanted to know more, wanted to see what Houston was thinking about the issues he wrote about. The entire book on the book feels like an assembly of stuff thrown in together. But not like a book book. A grand vision whole asking questions and thinking. Information, not knowledge, or cognition, rather.The part that interested me most came last: form.
Why was the scroll the first technology of capturing and circulating text? At least of which we have evidence, and excluding carvings on stone or clay.
The why is unknown. There’s just, well, information,
Houston says. That scrolls were usually around 25cm in height, and around 2m
long. That both hieroglyphs, semitic, and Greek writing would be in columns,
the former two from right to left, the latter from left to right. That works on
scrolls would be cut into “tomes” (from the Greek tomos for “cut”) gathered
into a “volume” (“rolling out”), kept in pidgeon holes, for example in the
Alexandrian library which had around 40.000 volumes. Not to forget the essential
part of scroll, the syttibos, or title, written on a triangular piece attached
to the outside of the scroll. That’s were the word ‘syllabus’ comes from, which
was probably the most interesting bit I learnt from the book, and which is
perfect data for a quiz show one of these days.
But why. Why scrolls. Does it have something to do with how we think? Or write? Or something more technical, haptic, something about the quill and the ink?
Houston acknowledges that we just don’t know – but that cannot enough. We don’t know about so many things, but surely we have to keep asking, keep searching.
After all, scrolls are foldable. They might
fray, or become brittle, but it’s not impossible. So why the potentially
endless scroll form then?
If someone has secondary reading advice, please share! Extensive keyword Googling has still not thrown out proper starting points (àscrolls cognition codex thinking).
As always, though, people keep using several forms at the same time. And so, scrolls kept being used even as the book, as in the codex, started to emerge. The earliest recognizable codex dates from 400 B.C., and came as a diptych, that is, two rectangular wooden wings kept together at one side through a spine-like piece of wood or so; those tablets would be covered in bees’ wax on which the writer would scratch the text with a stylus, which made for easy erasure and re-writing (a characteristic affording writers to keep with the flow of their thoughts (according to Quintilian!). I like the ephemerality of writing through that technology, and how haptic and hands-on get-dirty it is. Beeswax scratching, more so than quill on parchment, really brings home the fact that, with writing, you do something to the world. You leave something out there. You literally leave your mark, in a very visceral way. You scratch yourself onto the world.
It was a small step from the diptych to the codex as we know it, although the directionality changes. You’d flip open the diptych like you do a laptop. Turn that 90° and you have our book. The first relic of a codex is around 2000 years old, and has a single papyrus page, a recto verso, pages 10 and 11, with a consistent margin. There you go, you can make papyrus into books, hm.
The earliest more substantial evidence are the Nag Hammadi codices, around 1700 years old. They’re from papyrus, around as big as a pocket book today, have wastepaper enforcements, a leather binding, a fastening – good things stay the same.
Now, the question is why.
Why the scroll?
Why the codex?
Why make those very significant changes in technology, in handling, in cognition? One would assume it makes a huge difference in how you think if you write on something that (potentially) goes on forever without visible pause or stopping, such as you have when you flip a page.
One would also assume that navigating text in a scroll happens differently from doing so in a book where you can easily flip to certain pages, and faster. No need to unroll the entire thing, just open it on the page that you want: easy through pagination (and later tables of content, and even later the alphabetical index). A book may propel more linear kinds of thought, but on the other hand, you can easily go back from the middle of the book to the first page, or right to the end without undoing the whole thing.
One would assume the feel of a book in the hand is different,
perhaps more weighty, than a scroll. More like a tool, perhaps, something to
help you organize thought and life. To be in control.
It seems to me there are momentous questions around the two different technologies of text. On the other hand, it’s likely that someone who grew up with handling scrolls is perfectly capable of pointing to rough places where an information lies. And there is technically no need to unroll the entire scroll in order to find any place. So perhaps the change if not that big of a deal? But why not stick with scrolls then? It seems there’s something to it, since we’re gone back to scrolls, so we can think through them.
I don’t know, but I think partly it has to do with keeping text safe and portable (a book seems to be more able to do that), and with retrieving information more easily and faster. Even that tiny bit faster. And this is where punctuation comes in.
As I have explored elsewhere, one explanation for the
emergence of punctuation marks is increasing the speed of reading, which, in
turn, increases the speed of everything else. Trade for instance. Communication
of whatever kind.
On the other hand, perhaps there is a certain kind of depth that gets lost with the increase of speed of reading, writing, exchanging. Studies show that there is a degree of desirable difficulty, a harder-to-read font, for example, leads to better retention of the text’s content. I’ve written about this here. Poring over unpunctuated text and figuring out what it means could lead to more thorough understanding. Punctuation, the codex, even writing itself can be seen as agents of surface. If you write it down, you don’t need to really know it. You can always just look it up. The book helps you find the information quickly, punctuation helps you read it quickly. Perhaps.
If anybody has secondary research on the changes of text technology, let me know! Until then, I only have this to offer:
Last week, I was thinking about punctuation that is authorial and punctution that is editorial, trying to argue that the former does not necessarily take precedent over the latter in the understanding and appreciation of a literary piece of work. This led me to re-read McKenzie’s lectures on the sociology of bibliography, how meaning is created at the interface of writer, transmitter, reader, textual material, and circumstances of production. And this, in turn, led me to dip into the work of Marshall McLuhan, which is a fun and crazy ride through a prolific oeuvre of thought that becomes particularly curious with hindsight, now that we have the internet which he predicted in the 1960s, that return to an oral culture of collective identity and tribe-like affinities and behaviours. Although, of couse, it’s the written oral, or oral written, as we translate speaking into a hyper-literate world of digital communication (emoji emergence might qualify that dominance of phonemic writing, perhaps).
I had my brain definitely massaged, trying to wrap my head around McLuhan’s concepts of form, content, and social effect. A medium is anything that extends us into the world, mind and body. So a sword is a medium, extending our arm, and text is a medium extending our thought. Language in itself, speech, oral speech, is also a medium, as it extends our thoughts into the world. Today we would probably say the sword or speech are tools offering us certain kinds of affordances throughan experience of the world as embodied cognition (or consciousness?).
In McLuhan’s aphorism, the message is not content, what is semantically or metaphorically said, but the social effect of the characteristics of the medium. The ground, as it were, or context, of culture, religion, beliefs, values, practices, attitudes. Things that change imperceptibly, and are hard to notice. For example, planes are not hard to notice, but the change of attitude that goes with travelling so quickly is. A different perception of time, and connectivity, of distance, how to bridge it physically, in reality.
In that sense, punctuation is a medium,
and the changes of cognition and attitude that it brings with it are the
message, even (or particularly) changes in cultural practices that go beyond
the individual, and affect the customs of large groups of people.
One hypothesis for the increased introduction of several signs of punctuation within just two hundred years or so, between 1400 and 1600 (in comparison to the slow diffuse evolution of spaces, dots, colon, and comma over 2000 years) is that it improves reading speed: as you don’t have to pore over letters forever trying to figure out syntactical relationships as well as tone and emotional meaning, you can get the gist quickly through the clarification afforded by punctuation. You can react faster, dash a reply off, and continue with your business. Quite literally, the hypothesis argues, since the faster pace of epistolary communication particularly concerned merchants and other kinds of business people who were able to do more in less time. Fifteenth-century proto-capitalists.
So, in the McLuhan world, punctuation
is the medium which allows for faster communication, hence better trade relationships,
hence enabling capitalism (the message).
While I think that this is a valid
and useful way of understanding punctuation, I also believe it’s too neat. Would
McLuhan subscribe to this way of applying his dictum? Perhaps not. But he did
say that reading is guessing. In a televised interview in Australia, McLuhan
explores the etymology of ‘to read’, coming from the Old English ‘raedan’, going
back to ‘raten’, to guess, which is still used in modern German for example. He
says a reader needs to guess, or pick rather, one of the manifold meanings of
any one word based on its wordish neighbours and the general drift of the text,
the word’s environment, word-wise and sense-wise. A good reader is thus someone
who is good at guessing, someone who takes decisions quickly, snatches them out
of the mist of their mind, their intuition, experience. A good reader is a good
And punctuation, speeding up this
guesswork, is a handmaid, then, to the executive. But punctuation is also more
headstrong than that, it also slows reading down, and it also complicates
meaning, multiplies polysemous possibilities and connotations. Take, for example, one of my favourite poems
by Kim Addonizio.
Obviously, most work of punctuation confusing-where-one-sense-stops-and-another-starts
is done by the mere space between words. And then there’s the enigmatic
ampersand and forward slash in the penultimate and last lines of the sonnet,
just before the volta, preparing us for the jolt of the personal pronoun and
the expression of affection and the promise (mark the lack of full stop: it’s a
promise, it’s future, it’s ever coming towards us).
I have to admit… I have no idea (yet)
what’s up with the ampersand. It’s like Addonizio tries her best to avoid
writing ‘and’, instead offering us strings of conditional clauses, all governed
by the one ‘if’ at the beginning of the octave, and again another at the
beginning of the sestet. ‘And’ would compartmentalize all those enumerated
experiences, but without any conjunction or actual mark of punctuation in
between, all experiences are somehow all one, and if you have experienced one,
you’ve also experienced the others, and so this poem is for you, and for you,
and for you, and for me. For all you who have and so on.
In literary criticism jargon, the rhetorical device governing the structure of the syntax and poem as a whole is apo koinou. A word, or expression, referring backwards and forwards at the same time, belonging to both clauses, providing the link between them, a conjunction without ‘and’, as it were. For example: ‘if you swam across a river under rain sang/using a dildo’ (lines 8-9). The apo koinou here is ‘under the rain’, because it connects swimming across a river and singing with a dildo as mic. The (lack of) punctuation of the poem thus mimics the multi-directionality of reference, of pointing here and there, to you, and me, and her, the woman in the next stall.
None of this explains the ampersand.
Perhaps it’s a case of the ampersand’s
sinuous involved shape, folding back on itself while leaning forward. The
perfect form representing the apo koinou.
Perhaps we’re also not even supposed
to replace the ampersand with a spoken ‘and’ in our mind’s voice or otherwise. Just
registering the shape and what it does is enough. It’s an elegant visual
marker, allowing the eyes and the mind to rest after the rolling avalanche of if-clauses.
The last line puzzles me, too. Should
we efface the forward slash into ‘no one can listen’, or does it provide a true
stop, refusing the workings of apo koinou while still nudging
towards it, acknowledging that this has been its way of thinking all the way through
– but now the poem refuses pointing everywhere and at everyone, because now it’s
about ‘I’ and ‘you’.
The Old English etymology of reading
also includes ‘making sense’, ‘interpreting’, and also ‘counseling’. Reading
gives counsel and comfort. Punctuation confuses and clarifies. Literature, good
literature (good punctuation!), is always more wayward than one thinks.
Punctuation is a medium with a galaxy of messages.