I seem to be spending quite a lot of time with non-fiction reading lately; I do think that sometimes, when life is a bit frantic, I don’t always have the mental energy to engage properly with fiction and I’ve spent many happy reading hours recently with all manner of non-fiction. “Hyphens and Hashtags” by Claire Cock-Starkey was a book I was particularly interested in reading; I read her lovely “Library Miscellany” back in 2018, and it was absolutely fascinating. Cock-Starkey is the author of a number of non-fiction works, and here she takes a look at the punctuation and symbols we use every day in written communication. As well as being a really interesting read, there was much I learned which I didn’t know before!

Here I should declare a particular interest: my dad worked in the print trade for much of his life, initially setting metal text by hand and then transitioning to computer typesetting when that came in. So the nuts and bolts of getting language onto a printed page really have a fascination for me. If you add to that the fact that I did a secretarial diploma course when I was young and learned to touch-type on old manual typewriters, then nice shiny new electric machines, it becomes obvious that I really am the ideal reader for a book about making marks on paper and understanding their meanings!

“Hyphens…” starts off with a section that looks at puncutation marks and their history; and it’s quite fascinating to follow the development of the various marks into the standardised forms we use now. Cock-Starkey then goes onto explors glyphs (hash tags, asterisk, pound signs etc), maths symbols and those endangered or lost forms we don’t use any more. Interestingly, she covers the Tilde in this section (one of these ~) and I recall these being commonplace in the early days of the Internet, and a friend of mind having to explain to me what one was! Apparently this endangered sign is possibly being rescued by use on Twitter, which is nice! So many of the symbols are fluid in meaning, often being reinvented for different usage as the world changes. And it was lovely (for personal reasons…) to see acknowledgement of the influence of typesetters in codifiying the use of signs over the years!

I really enjoyed my journey through our written signs and symbols; the book is surprisingly wide-ranging, reaching all the way back into history (ampersands in Pompei!!) and considering the future of the various marks we make, and how we use them. “Hashtags…” is very readable and stuffed full of fascinating facts – I was particularly interested in the influence of the Humanists on the standardisation of punctuation, which I’d not read about before. It’s a book which you could either dip into, or read straight through – either works, although there is perhaps a little repetition if you do the latter, though it’s not a problem.

Metal_movable_type.jpg: Willi Heidelbachderivative work: Daniel., CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve read a number of Bodleian Library books over the years, and they’re always beautifully produced; this particular edition is a compact hardback with nice thick paper and a lovely clear typeface which is a pleasure to read. You might not really have thought much about the punctuation marks we use every day, but as “Hyphens and Hashtags” reminds us, they’re absolutely vital, particularly for us readers. Without them, everything we read would just be an endless sea of words with no breaks or boundaries – and although some modernist authors might have aimed for that effect, by and large we certainly need our punctuation! This is a lovely book and a fascinating read – highly recommended!