I’m always going on about how book design should be invisible. (OK, I’m a Stanley Morison fan.) Over-elaboration is a constant temptation for the book designer. After all if you sit there all day, every day, doing the same thing over and over, you get dull if you can’t introduce a flutter of fun every now and then. So you look for something clever for your display type.

I’m in the middle of reading The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. I think the title page is really quite attractive with its use of a rather extravagant swishy display face, It appears to be Venetian 301 with swashes added.

However, in the body of the book the designer is getting between me and the excellent text. I am rapidly developing a reluctance to turn the pages since I know I’ll be confronted by that coy, tickling fanciness at the top of every page. Just look at it:

You can click on the photo to enlarge it to get the full enormity of the running head.

It feels like every time you turn the page there’s the author, or worse, the Random House designer, the first thing you encounter on each verso, waving cheerfully at you and grinning “Have a nice day”!

Beware designers: it’s very easy to fall in love with a fancy typeface, but you have to THINK. What’s that face for? If you set the whole book in it your readers will throw up before they’ve made it through five pages. It’s a display font — use it for display. Anything fancy and elaborate cannot survive repetition: use it once, even twice, to get across the sense of delicate beauty (but is that really the soul of this book?) and then ditch it. The centered drop initial at the start of each chapter works — though, again, does it really communicate the appropriate feel for this fairly gritty story?

And page vii below looks like nothing more than an exercise in how to take a perfectly serious and pointed bit of poetry and kitschify it into incomprehensibility. Amazingly (and to my mind, quite instructively) setting that stanza from Auden’s The Shield of Achilles in fancy Venetian 301 italic type with massive interlinear spacing manages to trivialize it so much that it come across as if it were a stumbling, substandard greeting in a Hallmark card. It’s almost impossible to read like this.

Still the text page is OK: in my book you can’t miss with Bembo. (Well, I think it’s a version of Bembo though there’s something odd about the lower case e and the Italic Cap W.)

Why do people feel a running head is necessary in a novel? Running heads are useful in sign-posting where you are up to in a book — in a serious non-fiction book which requires navigational help. Being reminded on every page that you are reading The Vagrants, and that it’s by Yiyun Li, is information I can quite easily dispense with. If I really forget which book I’m reading it’s quite simple to close the damn thing and look at the cover! Get rid of the RH, and add another text line to each page and save a little paper please.