Isn’t it about time we all grew up?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Ideas -

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)

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