Skip to content

Color: a Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay (thoughts)

August 8, 2012

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

27 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2012 7:56 am

    Oh how I love microhistory non-fiction. I’ve had this one under my radar ever since I spotted it on GoodReads’ Best Microhistory List ( So glad it has your stamp of approval!

  2. debbierodgers permalink
    August 8, 2012 8:57 am

    Is there any chance this could also be sub-titled “Travels Through the Paint Box”? That’s the only one in our provincial library system that’s by Finlay & about paint. Or is it a different book? Anyone?

    • August 8, 2012 9:59 am

      Yes Debbie, I think the British subtitle is different. So you should be good! :)

  3. August 8, 2012 8:59 am

    Eva, I love how you spell colour the right way. ;)

  4. Erika permalink
    August 8, 2012 9:53 am

    I’ve been looking for some new non-fiction, and this sounds perfect! Thank you for gushing.

  5. Sarah permalink
    August 8, 2012 10:12 am

    Oooh this one has been sitting on my TBR shelf for a while, I am definitely going to move it to the top of the heap!

  6. jeanlp permalink
    August 8, 2012 10:20 am

    I knew you’d love this one when I saw it on your list! Reading your review makes me want to go get it again.

  7. August 8, 2012 10:59 am

    I did a little research and learned more about Victoria Finlay. She is white, British and was raised part-time in India. Here is a link I found that reviews another one of her books, with a little bio at the end of the review:

    • August 8, 2012 11:34 am

      Thanks Karenne! I knew she was white, and I guessed she was British, but her bio on her own website doesn’t confirm that.

  8. August 8, 2012 7:55 pm

    Sounds wonderful! I remember seeing this at a bookstore a few years ago and writing down the title in my Moleskin, which apparently was not a good way to remind myself that I wanted to read it.

    • August 9, 2012 9:15 pm

      Jenny! *happy Jenny dance*

      Also, I’ve yet to figure out a good way to really remind myself of books, other than immediately placing them on hold at the library. lol

  9. August 9, 2012 8:25 am

    Oh my goodness! This book is right up my alley and your glowing review just sold it to me.

  10. aartichapati permalink
    August 9, 2012 9:09 pm

    I TOTALLY know what you mean about hints of white man’s burden! Isn’t it ridiculous how often it pops its head up?!

    I don’t think you should have to spell the book’s title as “Colour” just because it was written by a British person. American English is just as valid, and in this case, makes a lot more sense in terms of pronunciation. It’s not like the title changed from “Color” to “Race” or something completely different that has more to do with cultural associations of Americans as idiots and unable to understand subtlety in books. I assume it’s much more to do with prevailing norms of spelling ;-)

    • August 9, 2012 9:14 pm

      That’s not why I don’t like spelling it ‘color’! It’s because I instinctually spell almost everything like a Brit since I spent so much of my childhood there. :) Promise, not ragging on American English. This blog is sprinkled with my favourites, and I drove my international relations profs nuts in college discussing defence and globalisation. hehe

      And yes, I’ve finally almost given up on British travelogues, at least by authors of a certain age, due to its presence.

      • aartichapati permalink
        August 9, 2012 9:15 pm

        Ok, ok, valid excuse! You have been redeemed in my eyes ;-)

      • August 9, 2012 9:16 pm

        Whew! You saw I responded with lightning speed to clarify things! Tempted to edit the post too to make sure no one else is thinking that. :p

  11. August 9, 2012 11:34 pm

    Ummmm….I think I need to get this book right now :p

    • August 9, 2012 11:51 pm

      Do it!!! ;)

      (Btw, my mom just told me she wants to go on a long weekend trip to NOLA next year. Squee!)

  12. August 10, 2012 10:30 am

    There was a fascinating story on NPR this week about color, spifically about why there is no blue in Homer. Why did he use the phrase “wine dark sea” which implies red water, when the water was blue? I bet you can search for it on their website if you’re interested.

  13. August 12, 2012 10:27 pm

    Gosh, you still have it: when you do a book review, I have to get it to read! lol I’ve seen this around, but thought it was a book about painting, and since i have zero talent, I didn’t pick it up. I am much more interested in it now!! Yes indeed, have just added it to my to-get list. It sounds fascinating, and thanks so much for reviewing it, Eva :-)

  14. August 15, 2012 2:22 pm

    Goodness, I OWN this book and have yet to read it. I know I will love it…

  15. August 17, 2012 11:29 am

    Sounds fantastic! Hopefully, I can find it at my library and also the time to read the book soon :)

  16. September 3, 2012 10:02 pm

    This sounds amazing. I love this kind of read as well, and believe that “Colour” is a fine spelling ;)

  17. Margaret Powling permalink
    October 8, 2012 11:09 am

    Just happened upon this posting, and yes, this is a super-dooper book (and I can’t stand the spelling of Colour as ‘color’ which doesn’t even give a clue as to the correct pronunciation. It is not pronounced ‘colOR’ so why spell it thus? In English it is pronounced ‘culler’ and the spelling Colour therefore is nearer the mark.

    I’ve had this book since it was first published and absolutely love it and when I need to know about a colour in my own writing it is my first port of call. I would suggest a companion volume is Mauve by Simon Garfield, about the discovery of a new colour (i.e. the mauve of the title.)

  18. December 23, 2012 9:45 pm

    Oh – I have this one too! But haven’t read it yet. One for the new year. The bits I read prior to adding it to my book pile a few months ago were wonderful. Good to have a nudge to pick it up. Thank you!

    Having a good time reading your posts tonight – followed a link from Clair’s Captive Reader blog.


  1. Travel Book Suggestions? | A Striped Armchair
  2. Color: A Natural History of the Palette | Care's Online Book Club

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: