‘Red’ Is at Once Surprising and Soothing

The story of early red dyes reveals everything about agriculture,the development of international trade, and fashion and class distinctions.

I wanted to read Spike Bucklow’s Red: The Art and Science of a Colour, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. My favorite color is navy blue, and red is a common complement that has appeared in my wardrobe or my collection of art objects with some regularity. My dining room has red walls, but the house was like that when I moved in and I don’t tend to repaint things unless there’s good reason.

Red was one of the colors associated with the big state school I went to for undergraduate work. A musician I once dated wrote a song called “Incarnadine” because the word just seemed so lovely and I suppose at the time I agreed. I’ve always loved the leaves turning in autumn and a sky lit up with fireworks. Yet, I have never really considered red — never pondered its symbolism in extensive detail, never felt myself drawn to it above other colors, never went out of my way to meaningfully include it in my life.

So I did not have any substantive expectations when I cracked open Bucklow’s book. For the first 15 or 20 pages, it seemed pretty boring. Red was very methodically working toward something or other, but I simply didn’t get it. Chapter One is mostly about beetles in ancient history. Reading about primitive efforts at civilization from a thousand years ago can certainly be entertaining and enlightening. Still, I could not be bothered to care so much about insects. As Bucklow began to delve into the science of early dye manufacturing, my mind was changed.

Before there was even proper currency exchange, there were these red beetles. The story of these tiny creatures became less disgusting and more fascinating as a microcosm of so many aspects of our modern world. Not unlike the recent spate of books that examine the foundations of civilization through beer or bread or whatever, the story of early red dyes began to reveal everything about agriculture, about the development of international trade, about fashion and class distinctions. Red was getting more interesting and useful with every turn of the page.

From there, the story turns to plants and then to minerals as sources of red, which ultimately charts the evolution from farming to manufacturing. Some of these anecdotes are highly amusing, such as one man whose fortune was made after he accidentally created mauve. Others are somewhat disturbing, such as the dye plant that switched gears to make poisons for Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. The problems with producing red in chemical factories highlight classic industrialization problems of unsafe working conditions, pollution, and the rise of regulatory government agencies.

After this, Bucklow turns to modern and synthetic reds and a deeply informative look at how the color has been digitized. No more shall I agonize over the differences between LCD, LED, and plasma televisions. The book turned out to have a few things like this that I could take away for practical application in my life.

But the real reason to pick up this book is simply its mindfulness. It’s a common complaint that we no longer have any knowledge about the origins of things. Kids these days seem to think that money grows on trees and food grows in the grocery store. Adults are equally out of it — ask the nearest person wearing red where that color comes from and you’ll certainly get nothing more in reply than an odd look. Very hip people may know something about indigo from some magazine article on the merits of raw denim, but that’s all.

As I type this, I’m wearing a navy and red striped watchband. Today, I’m looking down at my wrist and thinking about a tiny line of beetles marching down that red stripe. It’s not gross or creepy or provoking goosebumps; they look pretty much like ladybugs. Then I’m imagining the native country of those beetles, perched on a type of plant that does not grow where I live. I sink into the idea that these beetles have been around for centuries, that they are everywhere, that all of us are connected to these beetles through their color. Then I’m thinking about Thoreau and transcendentalism.

I guess that sounds pretty hippy dippy. Red is a book that would not be out of place at little hole in the wall shops where one buys candles and incense. They also often sell gemstones there and have a bunch of books on the alleged mystical properties of all that stuff based on scents and colors. If you ever wondered what “dragonsblood” is really about, this book will be a source of endless enlightenment.

Nor would Red be out of place in a graduate program for textile and fashion or graphic design, or an undergraduate program for chemistry or art history or ancient civilizations. Anybody studying up to appear on Jeopardy! should definitely read it. Though each individual page is full of arcane knowledge and “useless” facts, the total journey of the book is actually quite delightful. It’s substantially engrossing and not very obscure. And of course, even if you don’t care about why the Royal Navy runs a red thread through all its rope or what dangers are associated with mercury poisoning, Red will forever change your appreciation of sunset.

RATING 5 / 10