“The Secret Lives of Color” by Kassia St. Clair

This is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read this year. I learned much from it, and I’m glad I own a copy. Not only is it a great read that presents facts about a common topic in an engaging way, but I also love the design and format of the book.

The edition I own is a white, naked hardback with spots of color on it. From a distance, one gets the impression that it has a dust jacket that hides a rainbow cover beneath. The cover is appealing and matches well the title — The Secret Lives of Color.

Indeed, it is as if we are being told scandalous tales about colors, in some cases. I was unaware of most of the information I learned from this book, which covers 75 colors, shades, and hues and shares fascinating stories and facts about each. The book is divided into broad color families. A section is dedicated to each — white, yellow, orange, pink, red, purple, blue, green, brown, black — with chapters within each section that discuss variations of the particular color. For example, the first color discussed is white. First, we get an overview of the color as an introduction to the section, and then we begin a chapter on a variation/type of the color. The first is lead white, the second chapter is on ivory, and the third is about silver. The amount of chapter in each section varies, but the chapters are no more than three or four pages, and each page contains a simple border in the color being discussed.

The book is easy to navigate and is a quick read as well. Actually, St. Clair first began writing about color as a column for the British Elle Decoration in 2013, which I think shows because the chapters seem to have retained the flavor of a magazine column making them quick, snappy reads and compelling despite the wealth of information.

Typically, I hate having to refer to endnotes because of the extra work of having to flip to the back of the book, but it was worth doing so in this one. Some readers ignore these calls to digress from a sentence or paragraph, but I encourage you to do so if you decide to read this book for the extra information provided.

Obviously, I enjoyed and treasure this book, which I consider a favorite. St. Clair writes that this book “is not intended to be an exhaustive history” of color, but it’s certainly a great one that can also be used as a reference.

Some interesting tidbits I learned:

  • There’s a type of brown called mummy that is actually made from mummies. It’s also called Egyptian brown and Caput mortum (“dead man’s head”), and was used as paint from the 12th to the 20th centuries.
  • Apparently, ancient Egyptians unknowingly staved off eye infections by using kohl to outline their eyes.
  • A lot of pee went into making colors and dyes back in the day.
  • Pink – Baker-Miller pink, to be exact – can apparently weaken a man.
  • Cochineal is made from an insectDactylopius coccus – which has “made and felled kings and empires, and helped shape history.”
  • Blue was once considered a warm color.
  • Couple years ago, back in 1893, pink was for boys and blue for girls.
Overall: ★★★★★

It’s such a good read and so informative too. I HIGHLY recommend it. I read it on and off over a couple months (it’s not long, 320 pages max) but whenever I returned to the book, I was always hooked and hated parting from it for long.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

It’s worth owning a copy whether or not you’re interested in colors.


26 thoughts on ““The Secret Lives of Color” by Kassia St. Clair

  1. I remember seeing this on your list – it interested me enough that I decided to read it there and then and indeed it is a very interesting and aesthetically pleasing book. I do agree that the magazine origins are visible here and there, and I wish there were more colors described, but I overall enjoyed this book a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to know that your decided to read it too 🙂 and enjoyed it. I expected it to be a bore, actually, when I decided to read it so having it keep my attention throughout was a nice surprise. I think she lists other colors that weren’t discussed in the back, but I know what you mean.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. She touches a bit on how we perceive color and how the names associated with color has changed over time, so those sections will certainly interest you.
      And it’s interesting how much color affects social issues and vice versa. She discusses that too.


  2. I fully agree with you! The design, the endnotes, the writing style, the story of each colour shade … it all comes together in a gorgeous manner! I love it also because it’s a book you can either read from cover to cover, either (re)read few chapters / sections and discover interesting bits and pieces.
    I am planning to also read her second book – “The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History”. I hope it will be as engaging as the colour-related one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree. I read it straight through, but I can see myself picking it up later to just read a section or look up a fact about a particular color.
      I’d forgotten she has another book out. I’d like to check that too.

      Liked by 1 person

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