For Christmas I got two such books and they're both really beautiful as well as being great to read.
The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair is the story of 75 different colours, all with the most evocative names. Cerulean, Heliotrope, Dragon's Blood ... to name but a few. For me, heliotrope always conjures up the image of Maria Merryweather's governess Miss Heliotrope in Elizabeth Goudge's wonderful book The Little White Horse.
I was particularly taken with the story of Scheele's Green which, because of its high arsenic content was responsible for many deaths, including Napoleon in exile on Saint Helena. Or how about Scarlet which originally meant a fine leather which took strong dye so well that it became associated with this particularly bright shade of red. Scarlet has been associated with martyrdom, the military (in England) - both presumably because it was the colour of blood - but there are also numerous 'scarlet women' in literature, from the whore of Babylon to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter and beyond.
This is a beautifully produced book, as befits its subject. Those little coloured dots on the cover are slightly indented and then, when you open the book, you see this ...
... colourful endpapers for a book on colour. All the colours are well indexed but each colour also has a wide band down the side of the page so you can just flick through the book, choosing a colour to read about.
Add to this some interesting articles on the science and language of colour, as well as a glossary of other interesting colours that wouldn't fit in the book and you have the perfect book on colour.
The second book, Year of Wonder by Radio 3's Clemency Burton-Hill is sub-titled 'Classical Music For Every Day' which is exactly what it gives you. For each day of the year there's a piece of music to listen to, along with a story or description of the piece chosen. For example, the music for 9th January is the Offertorio from Verdi's Requiem. This was sung by a choir of prisoners in Theresienstadt, the numbers gradually dwindling as they were deported to Auschwitz. Knowing that adds something to the experience of listening to the requiem.
I particularly enjoyed the Adagio from Albinoni's Oboe Concerto in D minor on 17th January. I'd never even heard of him before; apparently he was the first composer to write solo oboe concertos. I'm looking forward to discovering lots more exciting music as the year goes on. This book sits well alongside the subscription to BBC Music Magazine that I bought with some Christmas money.
Again, this is a lovely book. The hardback cover feels soft, like a subtle velvet. How do they do that? It makes it a pleasure to hold and read. So, all in all, two very special books and thank-you Stephen for getting them for me.
I'll leave you with that oboe piece to listen to.