I’m dyeing here, er, dye hard

The Japanese firm Somenotsukasa Yoshioka has produced textile dyes since the Edo period, but until the fifth-generation head of the family, Sachio Yoshioka, took the reins, the company operated like any other modern dyer, whipping up its colors in test tubes. Easier, faster, and cheaper, synthetic dyes satisfied four generations of the Yoshioka family, but Sachio came to the decision that nothing made in a lab would ever compare to the hues traditional artisans could achieve using traditional methods. He has since devoted decades of his life to re-discovering and perfecting these lost arts.

In this extraordinary series of short documentary films, we are shown how much effort goes into, for example, coloring a single sheet of paper for use in a religious ceremony. It’s a beautiful red, but wow—every time you think they must be finished, another step in the laborious process is revealed. It’s anyone’s guess how someone first discovered these techniques without an inkling of organic chemistry. Today, we live with such an abundance of color—on our bodies, buildings, and screens—it’s easy to forget what history makes clear. Color is the real treasure at the end of the rainbow and people will go to any lengths to achieve it, up to and including theft, murder, and war.

It was eighteen-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin who revolutionized the craft of dyeing when he accidentally synthesized mauveine, the first synthetic dye. Historically, purple was so difficult to achieve—a minuscule amount of dye required a vast quantity of sea snails of the family Muricidae—that it became the de facto and then official color of royalty. In Imperial Rome, an unsanctioned purple accent on your toga could be a criminal offense. Perkin’s fortuitous accident made purple, and eventually every color, cheap and easy. To go from scarcity to abundance of any resource so quickly is never an easy transition, and the Victorians understandably went a bit bonkers with Perkin’s new shade. It’s easy to forget because we know them in black and white, but the Victorian world was saturated with mauve; their Edwardian successors were completely sick of purple by the time they came of age.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Simon Garfield’s Mauve is a purple-hued page-turner.)

Sachio Yoshioka turned his back on the convenience of synthetic dyes. He finds profound satisfaction in mastering the craft of natural dyeing, of doing things the hardest possible way. Is it true that the colors he makes naturally are truly superior to anything possible with synthetics? Maybe, but I do know that the quality of his lived experience as a craftsperson is.

To close out the summer, we spent a week in the Berkshires and, since we happened to be passing through, I suggested we pop into the town of Amherst, home of my alma mater. Lo and behold, we discovered that Unnameable Books, the charming indie bookstore in our old neighborhood of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, has opened an equally charming Amherst branch.

The real test of a bookstore is whether it can surprise you. Plenty are Instagram-worthy but stock the same array of buzzy books you see in every other indie store. It’s the Blockbuster Video approach: twenty copies of The Goldfinch, twenty copies of The Nickel Boys, etc.—good books, boring store. Who can blame the owners? Most people who bother to shop independent will want something off Barack Obama’s summer reading list. You need to sell books in quantity to stay in business.

Still, why bother? If it’s only about running a profitable business, open a dry cleaner.

The best bookstores, the ones worth visiting over and over, are run by crazy people, and that’s a fact. These people just don’t give an F. Crazy and independently wealthy is even better—the store stays open longer. (If only David Koch had taken a slightly different route with his wasted life. He’d have run a hell of a bookstore, if a bit heavy on the Ayn Rand, and we’d still have ice caps and rainforests.)

You should feel truly unwelcome in a good bookstore. The person at the counter should have a book open and their feet on the counter—you should get the sense that they’re a bit resentful about the presence of customers. There should be a stack of half-unpacked boxes behind them, for when they’re in the mood. There should be hard jazz, discordant modern opera, or some other, equally idiosyncratic music on the sound system. Nice and loud, like it or not. There should be a cat, but a mean one. Don’t pet it, whatever you do. At a good bookstore, you should have to fight through all this and more to get to the books. I’m suspicious of any bookstore that welcomes my business. It’s dishonest! As readers, we all just want to be left alone, and that attitude should permeate the place where books are sold.

Anyway, it was at Unnameable Amherst that I discovered Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. What a delight—a book written just for me, hidden away on a random shelf. Amazon would never have shown me Petroski’s book, despite the fact that I’ve purchased and enjoyed pencil books in the past, including David Rees’s charming How to Sharpen Pencils. In fact, when I search for “pencil” on Amazon right now and restrict the search to books, I still have to scroll most of the page to get to an actual book, and it’s Pencils, Pens & Brushes: A Great Girls’ Guide to Disney Animation. 

Damn, Amazon, you listen to all my conversations on our Echos and you still don’t have the first clue what I like to read—or even what a book is!

Why do I mention all this? Petroski, a professor of Engineering at Duke, traces the history of the common graphite pencil from its very beginnings in the 17th century, when people dug “black lead”—actually, pure graphite—out of a mine in Cumbria, England, and discovered you could mark sheep pretty well with it. Also, paper.

Again, I can only marvel at the extraordinary lengths people went to in order to make marks on paper. It’s astonishing—the work! Henry David Thoreau—who may actually have pronounced his name “thorough,” believe it or not—helped his father run their pencil business and made great contributions to improving the production process. Eventually, he figured out how to make pencils on par with English ones, the best in the world at the time. (The English had pure graphite from the Borrowdale mine in Cumbria. It took American ingenuity to work with the subpar stuff they could get.) But Henry hated making pencils. It was just too hard. Living alone in a cabin sounded like more fun, so he did that instead.

Easy is an illusion, and a destructive one for artists. Sure, acquire technique, but let go of the notion of shortcuts. There ain’t any. If art looks easy, rest assured it’s anything but. I’m thinking of the first time I got decent seats to the ballet—I couldn’t believe the thumping of the ballerinas’ feet, the flying sweat, the forced smiles and winces. Only a few rows back, they’d always looked weightless, joyful, serene.

Listen to Bowie’s demos. Here’s an early “Space Oddity”:

Hello, Bob. Carmen told us that you probably wanted a tape of the numbers that we do now. This is a very bad tape recorder and microphone, but we’re going to do what we can with the material that we now do.

The song doesn’t sound easy here. Not like it does after Bowie put all the work into it. The final version sounds inevitable, like dictation, as though Major Tom sang it to Bowie over shortwave as his vessel spun out of orbit. In this version, it sounds like what it actually was: a trial and a tribulation.

As it should be. For an artist, it’s either hard or it isn’t worth doing. We writers are the Imperial dyers of Rome and the sea snails of family Muricidae. We grind ourselves down to the shell, all for a drop of purple. But what a hue!