71. A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire (Amy Butler Greenfield)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I had a feeling this was going to be one of those books I often find I pick up with only mild interest and discover that even that was just a bit too much enthusiasm. It was with some surprise that I found myself unable to put it down.

A Perfect Red is the story of our fascination with one colour throughout history. An exciting adventure filled with piracy, empire, conquest, fashion, culture, international trade and espionage, closely guarded secrets, and...one tiny bug. Don't worry, you read that correctly. You see, the book is not just a detailed history of the lengths we've gone to in order to acquire that perfect shade of red; it's although the rise and fall of a small Mexican pest. An insect that helped create the Spanish Empire (it quickly became New Spain's most valuable export after silver) , contributed to major international wars, set fashion trends for centuries, led to the development of chemical warfare, and the refinement of patent laws.

Red dye has been used in one form or another since prehistoric times. We know from archaeological evidence, including cave paintings, that Europe's early inhabitants used red ochre. It's always been associated with passion, love, sacrifice, blood, and war. In many cultures, it was the exclusive right of the nobility to wear. Some countries even had laws forbidding peasants to wear it. The domain of high priests, kings, and emperors alike, red has always been considered a sign of wealth and status. From Roman statesmen to Renaissance painters, everyone wanted that perfect shade.

This is equally a history of that tiny little bug, Cochineal, as it is a history of the quest for colour. And it's a fascinating history. While Europe and Asia struggled to find a dye source that would satisfy their desire, the native peoples of Mexico had been using (and domesticating) this tiny little insect for centuries, achieving what the supposedly more "advanced" Old World could not. When the Spanish arrived on the shores of Mexico and began their conquest of the New World, they overlooked the real treasure for the longest time in favour of the sparkle of gold and silver.

I could go on and on quite a bit about this book. It really was a surprising find. A few weeks ago, I had popped my head into a discount book store in the downtown area expecting to find a lot of books that somehow managed to be published but which no one wanted to read. That's exactly what I found. However, I also managed to find this little gem. Not only was it less than half the advertised price on the cover, it would have been well worth paying the full price. You don't have to have an interest in textiles or dyes to enjoy this book. It starts off a bit slow in the first chapter but the author quickly finds her speed and takes you on a fascinating adventure (just be prepared to read the word Cochineal over and over and over again).

As great as it sounds (and it was pretty darned interesting), there were a few problems with the book. First of all, the footnotes. About halfway through the book, I finally realized that there were some. This was unfortunate. I could have looked at the table of contents but I was eager to dive right in and didn't bother. I'm glad that she's included them but there's no indication in the text of the book that you should flip back to read a reference about a particular passage, quote, or fact. When you do make your way to the notes section, they're thankfully divided by chapter and by the page number. However without a corresponding reference on that page... you get my drift.

The other problem is that while she's spent a great deal of time and research exploring the history of red dye throughtout our history, she barely touches the reasons behind our passion for this particular colour. Ms. Butler Greenfield constantly refers to our all consuming desire for this particular colour and the great lengths to which individuals and whole nations have gone to find the perfect shade. But the question in my head the whole time is - WHY? Why are we so besotted? This is never explored and I think would have been worthwhile to have looked into. At only 261 pages, The Perfect Red wouldn't have suffered in the least for an extra 50 odd pages dedicated what drives us to want red so badly throughout history above all other colours .

All in all, a surprisingly good read and definately Captain Recommended.

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