‘Semicolon’ Is the Story of a Small Mark That Can Carry Big Ideas

Parul Sehgal in the New York Times:

Writers have their pet themes, favorite words, stubborn obsessions. But their signature, the essence of their style, is felt someplace deeper — at the level of pulse. Style is first felt in rhythm and cadence, from how sentences build and bend, sag or snap. Style, I’d argue, is 90 percent punctuation.

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” “For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

Every sentence is a performance, or should be, and punctuation sets the stage. It signals the rise and fall of the curtain, provides the special effects, etches out the grain in the voices we recognize above as Camus, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison — even inducting us into the themes and tone of the novels. See those ironic commas in Coetzee’s “Disgrace” sequestering “to his mind” or the opening lines of Morrison’s “Beloved,” with one sentence sliced so suddenly, jaggedly into two.

In “Semicolon,” Cecelia Watson reveals punctuation, as we practice it, to be a relatively young and uneasy art. Her lively “biography” tells the story of a mark with an unusual talent for controversy.

More here.