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A book of inspiration for ‘grammar vigilantes’!! #hyphensandhashtags @NonFictioness

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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!

“A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library” (Shelby Foote) @BodPublishing

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A Library Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It probably wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that some of the most popular books amongst book bloggers are actually books about books! And to take that a bit further, who would argue that the next best thing to a book about books must surely be a book about libraries? 🙂 Authors like Alberto Manguel and Borges have of course written extensively and lyrically about libraries (real and imagined), and so this small and unassuming, but very pretty, volume might seem to be a more modest addition to the canon of works about libraries. However, what’s that old saying about never judging a book by its cover….?

“A Library Miscellany” has just been issued by Bodleian Library Publishing (who were kind enough to provide a review copy), and this unpretentious book is actually filled with riches on the stories of the libraries we love. “Miscellany” is an apt word here, as the book is arranged in bite-sized chunks covering such fascinating topics as “Lighting a Library” (hint: avoid naked flames…). “Some Fictional Libraries of Note”, Library Philanthropists, cataloguing methods, classification methods, statistics on type of books borrowed, number of books borrowed, largest libraries, oldest libraries, busiest libraries – the list is seemingly endless, and it’s all captivating for anyone who loves books and where they live…

Trinity Library, Dublin

For someone who loves the institutions and thought she knew quite a lot about them, I actually learned a lot from the book! For example, did you know that there was a specific type of handwriting librarians had to learn called ‘Library hand’? And that loose leaf card catalogues were invented in France in the aftermath of the Revolution? Or that the Vatican had a secret library? I could go on and on, as the book is full of wonderful nuggets as well as paragraphs on particular library treasures or library philanthropists or famous librarians (yes, my beloved Larkin gets a mention).

“A Short History of Public Libraries” was revealing; and the fact that philosopher David Hume was once a librarian was news to me too. I was also stunned to read about UNESCO’s World Digital Library, which I have somehow managed to miss and which has turned into a bit of a rabbit-hole I’m struggling to get out of at the moment, as it’s eminently browsable. The book also brought back happy memories of my early library-visiting days; I’m old enough to remember card indexes and cardboard library cards – you were limited when taking books out to the amount of cards you had. Yes, digital systems are so much more convenient, but I can’t help a certain nostalgia for the old analogue ones…

British Museum Reading Room

One of the most striking things the “Miscellany” did for me, however, was to highlight the role of universities in the evolution of libraries and the almost symbiotic relationship between the two institutions. It seems that so many libraries grew out of the university connection and yet the latter cannot function without a very well-stocked version of the former… The quote in the heading of this post is most apposite and I don’t imagine we could have libraries without universities or vice versa.

I’m not backward about coming forward and singing the praises of libraries and how important they still are, and in fact I’ve being made good use of my local one recently and gone on about it a lot here on the Ramblings. The press release for “Miscellany” calls it an “extended love letter to the library” and goes on to say “Their existence means our cultural knowledge, history and literary output is protected, organised and, above all, available to anyone.” I can’t argue with that, and Claire Cock-Starkey has produced an excellent collection of fascinating facts, stories, information, statistics and histories to celebrate one of our favourite institutions.

If I had any gripes, I would say that I would have liked the book to be bigger and longer (!) and perhaps have included some illustrations too. However, that’s a very minor quibble, and “A Library Miscellany” as it is would make the perfect gift for any book-and-library-lover you know (or even for yourself…) If you ever needed to be reminded what a thing of great wonder and beauty a library is, this lovely little book will do just that.

Review copy provided by Bodleian Library Publishing via Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

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