Still Library Isolated: Another Punctuation Book Review

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?

Aren’t they gorgeous…

What’s In a Name? Weird History & Fascinating Trivia - BBR ...

Splendid Isolation

Like most of us, I haven’t been able to work much these past two weeks. The escalation of the current situation makes everything else small. So it’s been a bit of a drag to open a book, or even think of research. Not because I don’t like it, or don’t believe in it anymore, but because it’s what I’ve done before when we were still allowed to hug, see friends, travel, and thousands of people had not been dead. So, I find myself doing things that I usually not do, like stress-tidying or stress-binge-watching of series I watched as a teenager. Extraordinary behaviour for extraordinary times. Or is that an excuse?

After all, I’ve got three lively books on punctuation and typography which I’ve been eager to read for a while: Sarah Hyndman’s Why Fonts Matter.  Bard Borch Michalsen’s Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History, and David Crystal’s You Have a Point.

London, 2016.

I started with the beautiful Hyndman book which focusses on how typeface influences our behaviour and understanding of the world. It’s full of engaging little exercises like musing about what flavour certain typefaces taste like, or how advertisement communicates the “character” of its product through typeface. Hyndman’s blog is a treasure-trove of quirky information and exciting experiments on typography, emotion, cognition, and just generally anything text design.

I whole-heartedly recommend the book for its creativity and gorgeous looks. At times, I wished myself to see more depth in terms of just quite why typeface is so powerful, has affective agency, can cause indignation and discord. A supposedly invisible thing, a transparent vessel holding words which we consider the real deal. Just like punctuation. Typography and punctuation are both under-estimated subtleties of text.

Playful and happy-go-lucky Cocon, developed by Dutch designer Evert Bloemsman in 2001.

Unfortunately, although certainly not intended, the book makes clear just how sexist typography is, that is, our attitudes to it: the book is rich, a little too rich even, in tasks of attaching expectations to a certain typeface and then checking your answer against what others have said in pre-publication surveys. For example, what job would the person do judged on the typeface of their business card. Inevitably, the curvy flourishing typefaces such as Garamond italic evoke ideas of traditionally female jobs, such as fashion stylist, planning country club galas, nail painter, hostess, beautician, looking pretty, being an expert on love. No kidding. These were people’s answers, and honestly, my own were somewhere on that scale, too. Cocon was judged to be a baker, carer, dancer, ditzy receptionist, manicurist, or dog groomer.

Developed by the French Didot family between 1784-1811. Originally signalling reason, enlightenment, and neo-classical virtues, Didot now connotes style and fashion, having been adopted by magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Didot, the typeface most often called “feminine” by the book (or the people taking part in the survey’s on which it is based), had its fair share of hostess and hairdresser, but at least culled some more high-end jobs, too, like academic, magazine editor, and, in a desperate attempt to somehow make it good, ‘female CEO’.

Quintessentially English? London-born Clarendon, 1845, Besley and Fox.

This persistent sexist strain seriously dampened my enjoyment of the book. It’s as if typography was all surface and no depth – nothing wrong with surfaces per se, but…when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes we have acquired throughout life…well. The same mechanism of thinking Clarendon is serious and professional and Cocon suggests looks and well-being (again, nothing wrong with that, but but but) — that is the same mechanism of sexism: there is nothing biological, and nothing natural about any of this. It’s habit, and habit only. Or is it? Are there not studies that we connect round shapes to sounds like /o/ for which our mouth becomes round too? Witness the word “blob”. And zig-zaggy shapes “sound” sharp. The bouba and kiki effect. So, one imagines the line of connection goes “round letter shape means round body shape means woman”. It’s all a bit depressing.

I guess if I’m asking the book these questions, or typography rather, I have to ask myself questions of why I think surfaces are shallow are bad.

Eventually, things are more complicated, and, just like the many layers of human skin which communicate with each other, surface and depth are relational, and gradients on a spectrum, are themselves, and are yet intimately connected. When does surface end and depth start?

Apart from all of that, I was quite struck by the choice to put a full stop at the end of the book’s title, and in red no less. Why Fonts Matter. Same goes for the back of the cover— ‘(and why they are lots of fun.)’ – full stop this time in back, in order to distinguish it from the white letters and red background.

In stark contrast to that choice, there is not a single full stop where it’s grammatically required, that is, at the end of proper sentences, e.g. ‘A CIP catalogue record is available from the British Library’ in the flyleaf. All that publishing information in full sentences lacks a full stop. Weird.

Seeing that Hyndman is a designer, she will surely have wanted and had maximum authority over the entire looks of her book, I thought, so I’ve written to her and asked. She said the publishing house passed it onto designers who took the decisions, so I wrote to Penguin who said they’d ask. To be continued.

And now, onto the next book and the next week in isolation.

11 April 2019: Of Faces and Fonts

I gave a paper yesterday at Geneva University where I did a postdoc on Shakespeare in seventeenth-century Germany. I spoke about the history of punctuation, how people invented signs such as the semi-colon and of course my brackets in the fifteenth century, what the prescriptions and descriptions of use were, followed by some literary explorations. That’s all stuff I had worked on before. But in the course of preparing this paper, I became interested in typography. The more I read, the more I started to doubt that I know what it is (the arrangement of words on paper? Space? Decorations, signatures, typeface, size of text, extra-linguistic signs like punctuation? All of it, I guess, and more.). But what I did realize was that it’s devicive and able to ruffle quite a few feathers. There are some people out there who get very very upset about how far up  or down a descender or ascender is allowed to go. And although I don’t count myself amongst these, I do see their point: there’s no such thing as innocent typography.

Take Comic Sans. Unfortunately, my interface won’t allow me to change the typeface, but we all know them. Those cute curly Donald Duck shapes. There’s something about Comic which makes us not really buy into what the sentence says. Maybe it’s the literal connection to comics, and the name. But maybe there’s also something about the shape of the letters themselves that our brain stumbles over and distrusts. Too curvy? Too goofy somehow? But anyway, if you still think Comic Sans is perfectly fine to carry the most world-changing news, you’re in good company. The physics nerds at CERN regularly use it for ground-breaking discoveries like the announcement of the Higgs bosun. More here.

If you want to evoke seriousness and credibility, though, you’d fare better with Baskerville, as described in this NY Times public experiment.

There’s an infinite number of stuff out there on typefaces. The famous typographer (and self-confessed obsessed madman) Erik Spiekermann, for example, has a go at poor old Helvetica, attacking its uniformity which may be good for Swiss bankers (it’s inextricably linked to the rise of corporateness), but is not, apparently, very beautiful.

Or take Futura and its clean airy capitals, how it’s been used by NASA in the 1960s when it was setting trends for, exactly, the future.

Typefaces, I guess, comes with the double bind of cultural associations and natural visual implications: does it have serifs as in Courier New, making it that bit harder to read? What’s the spacing between the letters, condensed as in Calibri, or uniform like Arial? The (unanswerable?) question is, of course, do we invent a certain typeface to fit a cultural programme, or does a new typeface arrive and gets hijacked, as it were, by uses and ideologies. Or both at the same time? Are typefaces born out of a certain zeitgeist, while feeding back into the same?

I have to say, I do like my Garamond, and I am always delighted to read a text using it, too. It’s so easy on the eye, but perhaps that’s just because it looks Renaissance-y to me, so is cosy and familiar.

In any case, the early centuries after the invention of the printing press witness a similar struggle of typeface, notably between the native blackletter and the ancient roman. As in the debates today, it was all about legibility, but also about associations to supposed medieval vernaculars printed in the former, and the new fancy urban humanist thought in the latter. Eventually, but only after a very long while of blackletter resistance, roman won. We’ve been living in new roman times, more or less, for two hundred years now. Ad fontes.

Which nicely circles back to my title: fonts and faces, faces and fonts. No, they’re not the same. A typeface is the general genera, as it were. Like Lucinda, Georgia, and Co. And fonts, they are the different kinds of the same typeface. Like children who all look different yet share the essential gene pool of parents. Such as ‘Gentium Book Basic’ of ‘Gentium’ in general. Or ‘Bahnschrift Semi Bold Semi Conden.’ Or this: ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh Allan Glen’. The longest font name to date. Apparently.

Here is a great video for the difference between typeface and font. What a cool guy. There are also lots of TED talks on typography, some of them given by bright young women. Typography is for everyone, it seems!

7 April 2019: You have a Point: Typography and Punctuation in Early Modern Texts

It’s conference time! One can never start too early. For the SRS 2020 in Norwich, I’m proposing a panel on those marks on pages which are not words (working title above!). I posted a call for papers on Twitter a couple of days ago, and would you know it, for once that thing did its networking magic, and three wonderful early career colleagues replied.

Esther Osorio Whewell from Cambridge works on curly brackets and their affect and effect on cultural practices like devotion and attention in reading. James Misson from Oxford is interested in changes in font and their socio-historical meanings, and my friend and old fellow St Andreian Jamie Cumby, special collections librarian at Perquot Library in the States, is insanely knowledgeable about anything concerning the technical sides of printing, such as type and woodcut and things. She will keep our literary critics’ heads well out of the clouds and in the actual print shop. 

I’m really excited to work with everyone, and learn about their fascinating research. Typography/punctuation (i.e. form!) in literature is quite a niche kind of interest, so it feels heartening to meet like-minded people. What we now have to do is write our individual abstracts, as well as a proposal for the panel as a whole, and find a chair. Since we’re four, the format might be a bit less traditional, and we might go with four 15 minute papers, rather than three 20 minute ones. I’m keen to break open usual presentation styles and Q&A sessions, and hope, should we be accepted, we can come up with quirky new methods. The future is ours.

Generally when it comes to conferences and academic events, I’d love for there to be more flexibility for people to attend who cannot attend. What about video-conferencing? Skype-talking? Tweeting, sending questions to the chair in real-time, this kind of stuff? Many are the times that I’d have loved to go to a conference, but simply couldn’t because travelling was too expensive, or I didn’t want to take the plane across the Atlantic. As a zero-waste vegan environmentalist, that’s not something I do. So I’m missing out, and it’s a shame. Hopefully, though, from conference to conference, we keep pushing the limits of communication so that scholars with disabilities, caring responsabilities, environmentalists, and financially disadvantaged people can participate in knowledge exchange. Which, after all, should be at the heart of what we’re doing, right? Amen.