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The Primary Colors: Three Essays

4.09  ·  Rating Details  ·  161 Ratings  ·  25 Reviews
A fascinating cultural history, these splendid essays on the three primary colors--blue, yellow, and red--extend to the artistic, literary, linguistic, botanical, cinematic, aesthetic, religious, scientific, culinary, climatological, and emotional dimensions of each color. QBPC Selection.
Paperback, 288 pages
Published April 1st 1996 by Henry Holt & Company (first published 1994)
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Color by Victoria FinlayTheory of Colours by Johann Wolfgang von GoetheConcerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily KandinskyInteraction of Color by Josef AlbersThe Elements of Color by Johannes Itten
Best Books About Colors
25th out of 32 books — 46 voters
Color by Victoria FinlayInteraction of Color by Josef AlbersChromophobia by David BatchelorMauve by Simon GarfieldBlue by Michel Pastoureau
The History of Colors
11th out of 32 books — 16 voters

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Community Reviews

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MJ Nicholls
Mar 10, 2013 MJ Nicholls rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, merkins
These impressive “essays,” also titled All the Shit I Know About Three Colours in One Long Luscious List, finds Theroux in fact-gathering mode, compiling a remarkable range of information on beautiful blue, yucky yellow and romping red. Each page contains upwards of nine facts that can be supped on slowly like a delicious latte from your friendly tax-dodging conglomerate milky libation provider, or hurled into the gub like a fast-food product from your local beef and spud dispenser. Digging into ...more
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Apr 30, 2013 Nathan "N.R." Gaddis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Blue. Yellow. Red.




If you find yourself a little put-off by all our bluster about Theroux The Curmudgeon, The Cantankerous, The Opinionated, The Smarter-Than-Thou, (never to apologize for a large vocabulary, thank you) please find yourself a copy of his Primary Colors or perhaps his Secondary Colors. In these volumes you might indulge yourself in that rare bird, the Therouvian Essay, erudite and Burtonesque. The style is restful and the voice is endearing. Lovely.
May 26, 2013 Rowena rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Those interested in history, art, literature, culture...
Shelves: writing, essays
“Brent Berlin and Paul Kay in Basic Color Terms demonstrate exhaustively and empirically, the very simple thesis that anywhere in the world, as a language develops and acquires names for color, the colors always enter in the same order. The most primitive are black and white. Then red. Then either green or yellow.” – Alexander Theroux, The Primary Colors

This is a brilliant book that will open your eyes to the world of colour. It’s a collection of three essays based on the primary colours: blue,
Jul 04, 2015 Sam rated it really liked it
Yellow and Red finished.

Yellow: A Reading List


Agate, James. Ego. 9 vols. 1935-1948.
Baron Corvo. Hadrian VII. 1904.
Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 1900.
The Bible. Proverbs 23: 31-2.
Branch, James. Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice. 1919.
Vergil. Eclogue V. C. 44-38 BC.
Brook, Maria Gowen. ‘Zophiel or the Bride of Seven’. 1833. Poem.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Chivalry. 1958.
Bulgakow, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. 1967.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan the Untamed. 1921.
Kevin Tole
Although written in '94 (or so the 'first published' blurb on the inside reads) this is perhaps a forerunner of the 'wiki-book'. Open your browser, type in a word to your search engine of preference (in this case either 'blue', 'yellow' or 'red'), wait for massed verbiage to appear on screen, go to first entry which is usually a Wikipedia entry. ........ NOW WRITE ON!!!

I waited some time to get hold of this book thinking, from the reviews that I had read and the opinions of other readers, that i
Jan 19, 2010 Harry rated it really liked it
I don't know how to review this book. It's like listening to minimalist music. Your experience might go from pleasant to annoying to sublime, or it could just stick in any of these.

Theroux writes three essays, each one about a primary color (blue, yellow, red). For each color, Theroux unfurls lists of associations and uses of the color. So in one paragraph we go from the earthy yellow color of urine to the otherworldy tones of yellow silk. Does this relationship mean anything? He keeps going. H
Jan 03, 2014 Tiana rated it liked it
This book is dense, written sort of like a stream of consciousness fever dream concentrated on anything which might happen to find itself related to either of the three primary colors, and I say that with admiration, it's completely what I wanted from this read. Theroux, in 268 pages rattle poetic hundreds interesting facts, anecdotes, references, and trivia about each of the colors, sometimes seemingly without rhyme or reason. The book has three chapters, Blue, Yellow and Red. I really enjoyed ...more
Aug 13, 2008 Aaron rated it liked it
Three separate essays, one on each on blue, yellow and red. They were highly enjoyable and readable and you left each essay with an overall impression of how each color is represented in nature and in society despite sometimes contradictory uses.

In the end though it felt like an endless stream of trivia about color. I didn't feel like he really paused long enough on any given aspect of a color or its use to dig in. Luckily it was a highly entertaining stream of trivia.
Oct 08, 2010 Jenn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this out loud over the course of a few weeks while I was sitting for another artist and it was wonderfully meditative for both of us. No story that required him to pay strict attention while he was sketching and no emotional content that would have altered my expressions too much. If you're like me and enjoy opening to random pages in an actual paper dictionary and reading for a while, you'll like this.
Jan 01, 2015 Rosalynde rated it liked it
Diverting meditation on blue, yellow, and red. Good resource for found poems or tidbits for your own meditation . . .

Delicious. Comprehensive. Not overly taxing. Can be dipped into at random.
Dec 24, 2010 Rissi rated it really liked it
Fascinated with the history & psychology of the primary colors.
Muriel Areno
It's taking a long time to finish this. I have read other things in between as I couldn't face having this as my only book on trips. But it's OK, the list of facts (because that's all it is( is interesting and I may go back to it for reference or painting ideas.

And then I read the comments about plagiarism, which turned out to be true. My copy has a half-baked addendum to make it right. It doesn't. I found this very disappointing from such a well-respected (I thought) author.

And then last night,
Mike Hayden
Dec 23, 2014 Mike Hayden rated it liked it
Encyclopedic and interesting but after a while boring unless your really into long lists of facts which are sometimes repeated or dropped. Also Theroux gives no bibliography nor cites anyone he used to gather his information. Well researched but in the end just a huge act of plagiarism.
August Letendre
Jan 08, 2015 August Letendre rated it really liked it
Interesting little book on the cultural history of three colors: Blue, Yellow and Red
Apr 04, 2010 Amanda rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, essays, colour, the-senses
this is fabulous. i'm almost finished the first essay: Blue. reminds me of Anne Carson's essays in the way the author moves from one topic to another; love the incorporation of art, music,literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology. one of my favourite books since Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses or Victoria Findlay's Colour
Apr 20, 2013 Michelle rated it really liked it
Such a comprehensive book, I had to read it slooooowly. Still, it was inspiring for the curiosity it gave me. I went off in search of the literary and cinema references.
Tavis Preez
Dec 09, 2013 Tavis Preez rated it did not like it
Read this...
Jun 20, 2009 Maria rated it it was ok
A group of wandering, pointless essays about the primary colors. The premise makes it sound intriguing, but it's really quite boring.
Nov 05, 2015 Amanda rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I certainly had never thought about color in the depth this book goes into. Good writing and way more interesting than you think could be.
Dec 26, 2007 Kat rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art-delights
I just became besotted with color - what a wonderful minute tour through color land. Absolutely vivid!
Dec 03, 2008 Bonnie rated it it was amazing
Red,yellow, and blue - and everything about them. Fascinating in this writer's hands.
Lawrence Barrow
Feb 16, 2010 Lawrence Barrow rated it really liked it
A wonderful triptych of essays -- must for any artist or art lovers
Jan 03, 2008 Leyla rated it it was amazing
Unbelievably inspiring!
Dec 19, 2009 Nathan rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Ms rated it it was amazing
Apr 30, 2016
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Alexander Theroux...: The Primary Colors (1994) 13 29 Mar 19, 2015 11:04AM  
  • Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts
  • Chromophobia
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  • Theory of Colours
  • Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction
  • The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art
  • Styles of Radical Will
  • The Essays of Leonard Michaels
  • The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century
  • The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky
  • A Nest of Ninnies
  • Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color
  • Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature
  • Selections from The Tatler and The Spectator
  • Other People's Trades
  • Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected
  • The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France
Alexander Theroux is a novelist, poet, and essayist. The most apt description of the novels of Theroux was given by Anthony Burgess in praise of Theroux's Darconville's Cat: Theroux is 'word drunk', filling his novels with a torrent of words archaic and neologic, always striving for originality, while drawing from the traditions of Rolfe, Rabelais, Sterne, and Nabokov.
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“Blue-shirt (Blauserk in Inuktitat, the Inuit language), or Mykla Jokull, now known as Gunnbjorn's Peak (12,500 feet)--the great metaphorical centerpiece in William T. Vollmann's saga-like novel The Ice-Shirt--is the great glacier in Greenland used as a landmark by Erik the Red in sailing west from Snaefellsness.” 1 likes
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