Too Much of a Bad Thing

So I’m almost done reading Andrea Barrett’s The Air We Breathe (Norton). And I’ve got a big complaint. That doesn’t have anything to do with the writing.

The design is too busy.

I’m not, obviously, a book designer. I know the difference between serif and sanserif, but that’s about it. When art department types starting talking fonts, I mentally retreat to my happy place with a cheeseburger, a beer, and a good crime novel. But I feel completely qualified to comment on this because of the “I know what I like” clause.

(Disclaimer: Because I am reviewing an advance reading copy, not an uncorrected proof, it’s my belief that this design is intended for the final product. However, the publisher may still make some changes. Which, as you’ll see, would be a good idea.)

My beefs:

  • The chapter numbers, which are in a drippy font and enclosed by horizontal rules, are set against a halftone piece of line art showing a leafy tree dropping fruit.
  • The drop caps that start the chapters are boxed, shaded and set against a similar but difference piece of art.
  • The symbol indicating a section break within a chapter is fine — it’s just an elegant squiggle — but when it shares the page with anything else, it’s too much.
  • The header on the left-hand pages, “Andrea Barrett” is in an overdone font with curlicues that just make you want to get out the scissors.
  • The header on the right-hand pages, “The Air We Breath” is in an all-cap, outline font.
  • The page numbers are bookended by cute little leaf dingbats.

Taken together, it’s like trying to read a novel through a doily. I don’t want to sound like one of those “women are from venus” types, but are they trying to ensure that only women will read this book? Or do they think that the men who will read it are partial to doilies?

Barrett’s historical setting and somewhat old-fashioned prose set the tone just fine. There’s no need to clutter up the page with things that pull our eyes away from the words. And if there has to be a doily, let her describe it.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

3 Comments on "Too Much of a Bad Thing"

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  1. dk says:

    You ought to eat that cheeseburger and beer with Stephen King, because he feels the same way:,,20034042,00.html

  2.' Keir says:

    I would really enjoy that, and I can’t think why he hasn’t called.

    I really agree with him when he writes, “Critics, with their stubborn insistence that there’s a difference between ‘literature’ and ‘popular fiction,’ are part of the problem” — it’s a good thing I’m a book reviewer, not a critic.

    I met an unpublished novelist recently, and when I asked him what he wrote, he replied, “literary fiction.” Of course, what I meant was, “what do you write about.” But the division King writes about is so real that it makes aspiring writers start pigeonholing themselves before others have had a chance to.

    But I’m getting away from the whole book-design thing.

  3.' Kathleen says:

    I just founda great book list for 2007, put together by Plum TV. I hope you find the reading choices as intriguing as I did!

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