Isn’t it about time we all grew up?
ho would have thought you could get rich designing colouring books for adults? They have been around since the Sixties, but the boom that began in 2012 shows no sign of stopping. In February, they made up five out of 10 books on Amazon’s bestseller list. Nor are colouring books the only sort you might be surprised to find in adult hands.
According to Publishers Weekly, 55 per cent of young adult ( YA) literature is bought by those who have passed their 18th birthday, and they’re not buying them for their nephews. Fully 78 per cent of those surveyed say they bought them for themselves. The phenomenon was first noted with the Harry Potter series, whose older readers hid the books inside other, more serious tomes to spare their blushes on the Tube. Ten years later, grown-ups engrossed in The Hunger Games can read about the heroics of Katniss Everdeen (the character played on screen by Jennifer Lawrence) safe in the knowledge that nobody can tell what you’re reading on a Kindle.
Along with the popularity of television series such as Game of Thrones, “family films” such as Monsters Inc and Toy Story, and the obsession with smartphone games such as Candy Crush, these trends have caused alarm. Why can’t grown-ups grow up? Some psychologists defend the phenomenon. Colouring books, they say, provide relief from stress, harmless fun, time offline, the opportunity to be creative without the need for talent, and a bit of nostalgia. What’s wrong with any of that?
For a start: the idea that filling in tiny printed shapes with a felt-tip pen counts as creative shows how debased our ideas of creativity have become. It’s an activity, at best, that’s good for getting you through a meeting without letting on how very bored you are.
What’s more, this boom in childish entertainment points to a much larger problem: our culture no longer offers any models of adulthood that are remotely appealing. Growing up is identified with resignation; abandoning all the dreams of adventure, all the hopes you had for enjoying, and contributing to, a better future. It was Churchill who said that anyone who isn’t a liberal at 20 has no heart, while anyone who isn’t a conservative at 40 has no head. This view of our lives as a process of progressive reconciliation with the status quo counts as wisdom, and not only in politics. We romanticise childhood as a time of innocence and wonder, forgetting its frustration and fear. We look, with equal parts longing and condescension, on the recklessness of youth, and settle for a life that means less, in every way, than we once imagined.
Anyone in their 60s or 70s who is still alive to the world and its possibilities, who is equally open to learning from an ancient text or a taxi driver, is described as “young at heart”. But do we consider what we lose when we say things like that? Or compliment a friend for looking younger than she is? No one in their 20s wants to hear it; tell them they look younger and you’re likely to meet an insulted pout. They want nothing more than to be perceived as older, that is, mature, competent, selfdetermined, powerful. Those of us over 30, by contrast, will feel a tinge of something between pride and relief. We don’t stop to think how our acceptance of an equation between being young and being open to the world, spells our own doom. But it does, for it suggests we can only appear to be appealing when we appear to be what we’re not.
Each of us has to take some responsibility for this collective madness. As individuals, we are scared to read “difficult” books or attempt other challenging activities. As the Enlightenment’s two greatest philosophers, Rousseau and Kant, argued, growing up is a challenge. Real adult activity takes effort and often courage. Colouring in someone else’s designs is always easier than making your own, just as forming your own opinions – after gathering and weighing information – is always harder than parroting other people’s views. This is why Kant wrote that thinking for oneself is the key to growing up.
But, says Kant, it is not just our fault: the forces that govern society do not really want grown-ups, for immature masses are much easier to manage. In Kant’s day, the means by which people were kept immature were straightforward. Censorship and punishment worked to keep subjects from thinking for themselves. While we shouldn’t forget that those methods are still used in countries with which we are allied – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and China leap to mind – the West has discovered more effective ways of keeping its citizens from growing up. Distraction works better than censorship. If you prevent people from getting information, some bold souls will always be moved to rebel. If you flood them with unmanageable quantities, they just want the noise to stop. Online and off, we are bombarded with adverts promoting products that, it is claimed, will make us feel sexy and satisfied. By upholding a picture of adulthood in which the best one can achieve is a collection of toys – the right car, the newest smartphone, the snazziest shoes – society keeps us so busy that we hardly notice that the real decisions, about the laws to which we are bound and the way the government spends our money, are out of our hands. At the same time, broadcasters, publishers and film-makers create content that panders to our lowest impulses, knowing it is the fastest way to make a buck. Given this state of affairs, real growing up is not a matter of resignation, it’s a subversive ideal. Like any ideal, it will never be fully realised, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t guide our actions. We could begin by exchanging our colouring books for a set of paints and blank paper, putting aside YA novels and going back to the classics. ( This is not to suggest that all contemporary culture is infantilising; much of the new work in television, in particular, is staggeringly good, and full of intellectual and moral complexity that is often lacking in film today.) People whose jobs leave no room for creative impulses can come home to sing, or sew, or cook. They can paint, or write poetry. Any of those offers better chances for getting offline, relieving stress, and finding pleasure than filling in someone else’s tiny drawings. And we can demand that our children do the same – and set good examples for them by regularly disengaging from the digital world. To think that individual resistance is sufficient to address conditions that are systemic is to succumb to the neoliberal faith that we’ve only ourselves to blame for the state of the world. These times are just as bad as they look, and it is harder and harder even to find the mechanisms by which they can be changed. But individual resistance is the only place to start.
Colouring books for adults prove how infantile we’ve become, says Susan Neiman We are scared to read ‘difficult’ books or attempt other challenges
Between the lines: a handcoloured detail from Gulliver’s New Travels by James Gulliver Hancock (Batsford, £9.99)