Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox (Sceptre) looks like it could be this year’s Salt. But where Mark Kurlansky delivered a precise, fascinating account of the intersections of salt and history, Finlay offers only scattered and rambling anecdotes with occasional flashes of insight. Colour is the story of the natural materials used for paints and dyes until the discovery of synthetic alternatives in the last hundred years. She hunts for the sources of the traditional rainbow as well as ochre, white, black and brown. The best chapters are the most focussed, such as her quest for blue, which is traditionally made from lapis lazuli, mined only in Afghanistan. In other chapters, such as “Green,” Finlay darts from subject to subject so quickly that interesting topics are discarded before we’ve had a chance to ponder them. Most annoying is her tendency to conflate past and present in traditional cultures, suggesting again and again that people she observes have “probably” been repeating the same traditions for millennia. In fact, many of Finlay’s observations rely on phrases like “almost certainly,” “most likely” and “possibly.” With her wealth of material, the author would have been better off sticking to what she knows instead of straying so often into speculation.