Book – Mauve
Author – Simon Garfield
Year – 2000
Genre – Science/Biography
Pages – 204
This is a book which tells of the life of Sir William Perkins – the man who invented mauve. That is all I knew when I received the book to read. I had recently read another book by Simon Garfield and decided that I quite fancied reading some more by him, so I did a bit of a search on what else he had written. I had already read about the British wrestling scene, and could now add Radio 1 DJs, cocaine use in Thatcherite Britain, the construction of a Mini, stamp collecting, font types, and the discovery of mauve. Quite the eclectic mix, but massively intriguing, so I jumped on to the ever brilliant Read It Swap It (which I promise I will one day get to writing about) and got myself a copy of this book – Mauve.
Now first things first, don’t get the impression that because it took me three weeks to read this – an eternity by my standards, particularly for a book that clocks in at just over two hundred words – that this is a tough to read, really sciency book. It is far from it. I have just been incredibly busy for a while, and haven’t squeezed in as much reading as I would usually like. In fact, this is a wonderfully easy to read book when you consider its content – something that now, by paragraph three, I should probably tell you about.
In 1856, William Henry Perkins was working with coal tar byproducts trying to invent a synthetic quinine – the drug used to treat malaria. He figured that with a synthetic cure, he could make the world a much better place. However, by accident, he created a substance which dyed his coat purple. He did some tests and discovered that he had successfully found a dye that would hold fast and in a vibrant colour that it had not been possible to dye before. From there he decided to market it, and despite becoming a little bit of an academic pariah, he was very successful. It is from his discovery, that much of today’s chemistry comes, and quite poetically, his work has resulted in some of the most important medical advances in the world.
The joy of Garfield’s writing, is that even if you have no prior knowledge of a field – and unsurprisingly in this case, I had none whatsoever – he manages to draw you in. I can think of few subjects that on the outside appear more boring than the invention of the colour mauve, but he somehow makes it all seem interesting, without appearing to be a throwaway book with no actual information. I am now very much looking forward to getting my hands on some of the other strange books that he has written.
Find Simon Garfield’s website here