11 June, 2007

Book Report: Seeing Red

This week I read “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire,” by Amy Butler Greenfield.

(A preface here: my mother is on a small committee for the American Library Association that chooses the most Notable Books of the year. Therefore she receives boxes and boxes of recently published books on her doorstep daily, and often recruits her friends and family to peruse some of them to help her decide if she should even bother reading them (since she has hundreds to read each year). So most of the books I read are brand new, and I have picked them solely based on their descriptions.)

For obvious reasons, I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, I am easily bored by political histories and the bulk of this book is just that. It’s really a history of the cultivation and use of the cochineal bug for red dyes, which is a story very similar to the cultivation and use of cacao, quinine, coca, sugar, coffee, bananas, and many other New World products that Europeans pillaged from the Americas, and that I have already read about.

For me, the book didn’t get interesting until it reached the 19th Century and the life of William Perkins, the man who first discovered analine dyes (and pioneered the manufacture of synthetic dyes in general, which led to synthetic medicines, plastics and weaponry, among other things), and whose story is far better told in one of my favorite books, “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World,” by Simon Garfield. This brief chapter, which accounts for roughly 5% of the 261 pages of text, was the only part of the book that I could read without wanting to doze. The rest was an exhausting repetition of examples of red color as used by historical cultures, as well as the gruesome and oft-told tale of colonization and the import trade to Europe from the 16th-19th Centuries. One other item of note was a description of the alchemistic science employed to create natural dyes in the Middle Ages.

In conclusion, I have to say that I would not call this a Notable Book. According to the back cover, the LA Times described it as “rollicking,” which is probably the last word I would use in its reference. For anyone interested in reading more about color and dyes, I highly recommend “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World,” by Simon Garfield. And if you are interested in colonialization and the European trade of natural materials from the New World during the 16th to 19th Centuries, you should look into “Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind,” by Henry Hobhouse. It’s not a page turner, but if you read it, you will never need to read anything on the subject again.

No comments: