Although there have not so far been quite enough publications to establish ‘books on colour’ as a full-blown literary genre, there is no longer much sense of novelty about such essays. Alexander Theroux’s delightful and idiosyncratic studies The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors are probably the best of the titles to tackle the full spectrum, while William H Gass’s On Being Blue is something of a modern classic. The cultural historian Michel Pastoureau has written histories of black and blue; Bruce Chatwin left an incomplete manuscript about the colour red. On a personal note, I have toyed with a project about green – the colour of the Prophet Muhammad, ’pataphysics, absinthe, jealousy, ecological politics, Shakespearean comedy, sickness and our own pleasant land.
Reaktion Books have now added two new contenders to the colour field, both handsomely produced hardbacks. One is a heavyweight: John Harvey’s The Story of Black. The other, quite a bit shorter, is a bantamweight: Carol Mavor’s Blue Mythologies. Harvey’s book is, as he puts it, long but not overlong;