Every reader is constantly on the hunt for ‘one more’ book that will provide the best experience- that “bookish high”. However, there is a common feature in every written work, including this one, that when properly explored, will double a reader’s experience. This tool is the punctuation mark: yes, punctuations like the full stop, comma, hyphens, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, etc.
Punctuations, like words, add a lot to the story or idea that a written piece is trying to sell to its readers. They also contribute to the pace, writing style, delivery, and even the tone of any piece of writing. With so much contribution to writing, it is baffling that readers tend to overlook punctuation marks and focus squarely on the words, thus, missing out on an important ingredient that brought the piece or book to life. In June, I shared a brief exploration of the use of semicolons in some books and the feedback was eye-opening:
“Who knew punctuations could be this exciting!”
“It is like finding out authors’ secret weapons in their writings”
“This intrigued me to be more observant with my reading materials”
“I think the semicolon might be the most fascinating and most intriguing item of punctuation. It is the basis of a whole movement for those who have been victims of suicide”
After reading through the interesting responses that I got from fellow readers, it prompted me to further explore how other punctuation marks add to the beauty of writing and if that beauty can be superimposed on the act of reading. I picked some books at random: if you have read these books, my findings might induce a sense of nostalgia that I hope will prompt you to reread them; and if you haven’t read any or all of these books, I highly recommend that you do.
The first book, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, is perhaps the most widely read contemporary African literature today. In this book, Adichie explores the complexities of love, race, identities, hair, and migration. All these are very heavy and broad themes so as expected, Adichie packed a bunch in this book. The writing would have been wordy and difficult to get through if she hadn’t made use of a wide variety of punctuation marks. She invited us into the world of Ifemelu and Obinze with her use of full stops, semicolons, colons, commas, and hyphens. These punctuation marks contributed to the tone and delivery of Americanah and if nothing else, they also served as pointers to Adichie’s writing and storytelling prowess.
The second book is The Nickel Boys by the award-winning Colson Whitehead and although he didn’t make much use of semicolons in The Nickel Boys, his use of hyphens contributed significantly to plot delivery throughout the book. But perhaps the most significant use of punctuations in this book is towards the end where Whitehead uses two exclamation marks in succession, to equip the reader with a sense of urgency for the ultimate plot twist. These exclamation marks are easy to miss, but their impact is undeniable.
Another book that highlights how important it is to interact with punctuations in writing is Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. In this book, the reader can see semicolons being finely used by King to express his agitations over his imprisonment and racial inequalities – an example of how punctuation marks are used to portray tone in writing.
It is also important to note that while you as a reader can read meanings in the presence of punctuation marks in a piece/book, the reverse equally holds: you can look for meanings in the absence of certain punctuation marks. A good book that puts this forward is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (if you haven’t read a historical fictional account in a while, you should pick this up!).
In The Shadow King, Mengiste did not make use of quotation marks to distinguish dialogue and narration and this browbeats an eager reader into paying better attention to every word in the story. This attention that Mengiste demands from her readers makes more sense when you consider the gems she hid throughout the book and the Ethiopian history she attempted to retell accurately within the story.
After the analyses of punctuation marks in the aforementioned books, one can conclude that these findings will most likely improve the experience of any reader that picks them up – the feeling that will follow is similar to the one you get when you discover something that is hidden in plain sight, but that others haven’t recognized.
Many authors have written many books about punctuation marks, some focusing on specific ones while others dealt with them more generally. However, I will recommend Semicolon: How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and Maybe Even Change Your Life by Cecilia Watson and In the Land of Punctuation by Christian Morgenstern (Translated by Sirish Rao, Illustrated by Rathna Ramanathan). They are very easy and relatable books that any reader looking to understand the history and use of punctuation marks will enjoy.
Granted, I may have shifted the spotlight from what you use to think was enriched reading to something you have not given much thought to – if any at all. Now, you only need to start small. The next book, essay, article, or even an Instagram caption that you read, make sure to make a mental note to interact with the punctuation marks used, as much as you interact with the words.
That said, reread this article and focus a little more on my punctuation usage.