Color: a Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay (thoughts)
Disclaimer: all of my childhood-spent-in-England instincts go against spelling the title as Color instead of Colour, but I figure I should be accurate for my US readers who try to do searches the book after this post! And hopefully there will be many. ;)
This book is so, so good, just writing a post on it makes me want to run out and reread it immediately! Finlay uses different colours as a the unifying theme in a book that weaves together travel, history, science, and culture to great effect. This is what modern nonfiction looks like at its best, and I can’t gush about it enough! Even my mom, who has a strong preference for fiction, gulped this down. It’s excellent, y’all.
Each chapter is devoted to a different colour, and Finlay’s explorations into how the sources of pigments (both historical and modern), the cultural associations people have with the different colours, the science behind it all, and accounts of her travels to the sources’ origins. Her writing is always well balanced and intriguing, drawing the reader in. More than anything else, Finlay’s true curiousity and enthusiasm shine through in such an infectious manner, it’s easy to get just as excited over what she’s learning and experiencing.
Oh, and even though Finlay is white and British (…I think? she might not be, her bio was a bit vague about that, lol eta: Karenne did some digging and confirmed that Finlay is British) and visits several countries that have a history of colonialism, she never gets that disturbing tone I’ve noticed in some British travelogues, the one that whispers of the white man’s burden and the beleaguered natives. Instead, her writing and reporting displays an admirable respect for all kinds of cultures, without glossing over the stickier bits.
So in sum, I pretty much want to be Finlay when I grow up, and I recommend Color: a Natural History of the Palette to everyone who loves the wonder and magic that truly great books spark. In other words, to every reader I know.
Suggested Companion Reads
- Journey of the Pink Dolphins by Sy Montgomery (Montgomery is one of my go-to authors for combining science, culture, and travel together in thoughtful, compassionate, and pageturning books.)
- Eating India by Chitrita Banerji (Another book that mixes travel, culture, and a more specific interest, in this case food, to great effect.)
- Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker (A bit more science-y, but the same blend of scholarly pursuits with more personal travel accounts makes this another fascinating and readable piece of nonfiction.)