Much more than your basic Roy G. Biv primer, this concise treatise on colors is as straightforward and as intoxicating as colors themselves. At the most basic physiological level, seeing a color is simply “the particular visual experience triggered by the detection of electromagnetic waves between about 390 and 700 nanometers.” At every other level, colors are more complex. There’s even something slightly miraculous about them; Newton saw just five colors in the rainbow, but because the world was created in seven days, he thought there should be seven, as in fact there are. Is believing seeing, or is seeing believing? “What we see are the colors of the mind,” Kastan says, since color vision is a mysterious interaction among the eye, the brain, light, objects, and any number of cultural associations. These various emotional, political, racial, and literary meanings are often contradictory and are constantly shifting. Many seem universal, like the equation of melancholy with blue (though blue is also part of the sky and water, so it’s no less true to call it transcendent and buoyant). Others are illusory: no actual flesh corresponds to white, black, or yellow, as Kastan’s discussion of Byron Kim’s “Synecdoche” brilliantly shows. For each of the ten colors Kastan discusses—the rainbow shades plus gray and the achromatic black and white—he has dozens of fascinating observations, from the etymology of the colors’ names to their artistic champions to their individual personalities. Violet is “purple lit from within,” for instance, and Indigo has a dark history. Orange took a long time to distinguish itself as a color, separate from the fruit. Which begs the question: do colors have an independent existence, apart from the objects that reflect them? And if so, where would that be? “Color happens rather than exists,” Kastan suggests. Think about that the next time you watch a sunset bursting into a color chart of reds.
This meticulously researched, brave and intelligent book demonstrates that the mass incarceration of civilians during war has been practiced around the world for more than a century. Andrea Pitzer traces the evolution of concentration camps from 1890’s Cuba up through the Boer War, Russian Revolution and Holocaust, and she finishes with Guantanamo, where, she writes, “we have detainees in indefinite detention.” One Long Night is no easy read. But it is surely a book for the times, as we come to grips with the chilling implication that yes, it can happen here.
Stoll’s outstanding history of Appalachia relates a true tragedy of the commons, but not as that term is generally understood. Used by generations of households throughout the region before land became “real estate,” forests, fields, and waterways provided a ready supplement to earnings, helping people live a subsistence existence. Hunting, fishing, and foraging weren’t the free-for-all of competing self-interests; rather, people took no more than they needed, and were careful to leave the rest for later. Today, this might seem a model for a sustainable lifestyle. To Gilded Age capitalists, it seemed like a “failure” to monetize resources. Corporations stepped in to rectify this, introducing modern ideas of progress to a population they dismissed as “backward.” As timber and mining interests dispossessed these smallholders of their land—in much the same way the state had robbed Native Americans of their ancestral lands—they also introduced them to debt, poverty, and starvation, conditions that this poor but self-sufficient population hadn’t known before. While Stoll’s thorough and very readable economic history delves back to England’s clearances and the roots of capitalism to explain Appalachia’s plight, the book is also an important cultural history, tracing the decline of the heroic American pioneer, as embodied by Daniel Boone, into the degenerate “hillbilly,” an “aspersion. … [that] coincided with the seizure of the environment.”