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Castorboy

Mauve

Mauve by Simon Garfield
From:   KiwiCaro1  (Original Message)
Sent: 1/26/2008 3:59 PM
Mauve is one of those books which combines biography and history in the exploration of a substance. The sort of thing I enjoy very much and this was well written and well researched and the main person sympathetically portrayed, though a little distant, since it is a factual book and we never see anything through his eyes.
I mentioned once that the ‘discovery’ of mauve meant the discovery of synthetic colour, not that the shade hadn’t been known before.
William Perkin discovered it at the age of 18 in the dregs of coal-tar when he was doing some chemical research. He then, with the help of his father (who had not wanted him to be a chemist at all, and who comes across as someone very supportive of his young son’s ambitions and ideas, even when not totally in sympathy with them) set himself up in industry and became very wealthy.
William Perkin then spent time in the dye industry but became disillusioned with British bureaucracy and lack of funding, and Germany became the main dye country. Perkin was very well known at times in his life and his discovery had implications far beyond colour and dye.
Coal tar and its derivatives are important in all sorts of fields.
They formed the basis of much of the pharmaceutical industry, weaponry in the war, perfumes, saccharin, chemotherapy and eventually DNA research.
The chemistry explained in this book was sometimes beyond me, but it never detracted from my enjoyment of this book and the author Simon Garfield never forgot the human element which always interests the general reader. One of the more poignant sentences to me was one where Perkin was being honoured in 1907 by his local church for his educational and spiritual work (where someone remarked that there was much science in the Bible) and his wife’s work was praised. She made a little speech saying that her husband had received many addresses and tributes, but this had been the only one in which she had been allowed to take part.
I was fascinated by one page which explained that there are 7500 colour names officially registered. Over 100 of those just use names from dyes (ie.naphthalene green) but others come from flower (528), place-name (427), fruits, food, peoples (Dutch blue), substances (amber), personal names, botany (acacia), birds, animals, trees, weather aspects (though have you ever heard of the colour ‘smog’ which was the example given?), minerals, romance and passion (‘golden rapture’), time of day (midnight blue), marine life (coral), mythology, religious occupations (cardinal purple) etc.
And apropos of the discussion of modernism one sentence says, Perkin could only have discovered mauve when he did because of the particular state of chemical knowledge. He was born not long after the chemist John Dalton had theorised that atoms combine with each other in definite numbers, thus leading to the establishment of chemical formulae. But Perkin conducted his early experiments at a time when so much was yet unknown, thus allowing for his productive error over the synthesis of quinine. If Perkin had been born 20 years later he would have known how fruitless his search would have been, and thus would not have blundered into mauve.
And I noticed a very odd coincidence for me. I had just read Self’s Punishment by Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp which talked of slave Jewish chemists captured and working for the Nazis, and this books also talked of one of the dye companies in Germany which at the beginning of 2000 was still involved in disputes over further individual payments [of compensation] to its former slave workers.
I had never heard of these chemists before these two books.
Sorry this is perhaps more about history than literature. And I apologise if I have any of the science wrong here – though I have tried to avoid talking of it at all really.
Does anyone else like this sort of book? There are others in a similar line like ‘Salt’ and the one I read recently about cemeteries in London.
From:   lunababymoonchild
Sent: 1/27/2008 1:13 AM
Caro, I love this kind of book and thank you very much for that informative review.  Mauve was recommended to me by Amazon and it looked good but, obviously, having an endorsement from you makes it all the better.
I'm glad that you enjoyed the book and that you took the time to review it, it's certainly made my mind up for me.

From:   Evie_forever
Sent: 1/27/2008 1:43 AM
Yes, thanks for that Caro - very interesting review. It's not the kind of book I would be interested in reading, but I loved reading your review, I don't feel the need to explore more! But fab. to have an enthusiastic and informative response to a book, and a bit of insight into an issue I knew nothing about.

Faber published a book on the history of the pencil some years ago that I would quite like to read, but never have - I really love pencils!
From:   KiwiCaro1
Sent: 1/27/2008 1:52 AM
Thanks Luna and Evie,
I will feel responsible if you don't like this now, Luna!
And Evie, have you visited the pencil museum in, I think, Keswick.  It was very fascinating - a whole museum, if small, dedicated to the pencil
From:   lunababymoonchild
Sent: 1/27/2008 5:05 AM
Don't be Caro, I fancied reading the book when it was recommended by Amazon and you confirmed that.  It's the kind of book that's right up my street anyway so there is no doubt - in my mind at least - that I will like it.
There's a history to pencils?     Luna

From:   Evie_forever
Sent: 1/27/2008 5:20 AM
I hadn't thought much about it before I saw the book, the pencil is one of those things you take for granted - but someone must have come up with the idea of a tube of wood with a bit of graphite down the middle, as an improvement on what had gone before. I do get quite excited about pencils...

Thanks for mentioning the museum, Caro, I hadn't heard about that - the Lake District is not somewhere I ever go, but I would love to, and I must remember that museum if I do!
From:   MikeAlx
Sent: 1/30/2008 1:46 AM
Evie, I got my dad that history of the pencil book for Christmas some years back. I think he found that, whilst it was certainly interesting in places, it was a bit underwhelming on the whole - which disappointed me a bit, as I'd read some rave reviews and thought it might be right up his street. Oh well...
From:   lunababymoonchild
Sent: 2/1/2008 5:46 AM
Just taken delivery of this today, Caro, and I'm around 2 chapters in.  Enjoying it immensely. Luna
From:   KiwiCaro1
Sent: 2/1/2008 4:16 PM
That's good, Luna.  I don't think the rest of it will disappoint you.  I love reading those sort of books where I learn lots (even if I ignore the actual chemistry and just let those bits pass over me.  Could learn a lot more with some effort.)

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