By CHLOË HAWKEY.
“COLORING BOOKS SPECIFICALLY for adults”—two years ago, had I mentioned these words, you might have laughed and walked away; last year, you might have rolled your eyes and made a remark about passing trends. This year, however, you probably feel some obligation to recognize that a fair number of people are definitely taking coloring books seriously, that they must be more than merely a passing trend. After all, in 2015, twelve million adult coloring books were sold in the U.S.; this month, seven out of the ten New York Times bestsellers in the “Games and Activities” category were such books. Nor is it merely an American phenomenon: in South Korea, Secret Garden, by Johanna Basford, considered to be the godmother of the trend, sold 430,000 copies. Adult coloring groups are popping up in Australia as well as the U.S. And according to Amazon.co.uk, three of the bestselling books in the “Sports, Hobbies, and Games” section are adult coloring books.
The purposes and effects of these collections of intricate and fantastical designs are debated, but they seem to fall into three categories: art therapy, relaxation, and play. The first of these, though perhaps less well-known to Fortnightly readers, is in fact a fairly well-established method for coping with grief, loss, and anxiety. The idea is that when emotional pain is too great to be put into words, it can nevertheless be expressed through art, which can allow the patient relief from the sense of isolation and chaos that accompany intense grief. Studies have shown that coloring in existing patterns can be especially useful in this process, as such patterns offer an ideal combination of structure and room for creativity.
But what of those adults, tired and stressed, perhaps, but by no means in acute emotional distress, who buy books and spend hours in the evening, curled on the couch, coloring? They seem to be seeking something else, some combination of meditation, relaxation, play, and nostalgia. On the one hand, we can hardly blame them. Many of them are working long hours, in an environment that features desks and florescent lights and computers, one that simultaneously promotes emotional isolation and prevents physical solitude. This is—forgive the oxymoron—wildly unnatural; people have not evolved for lives of crowded indoor internet-using. So if they cannot spend their evenings roaming in the woods, because they’re too tired or their kids are asleep or they live in the city, at least they can occupy their hands in some steady, simple task—namely, coloring—that allows their brains the sense of creativity and freedom to wander.
On the other hand, workers in developed nations have been working long hours at desks in cities for centuries. Now they are greedily lapping up advances in digital technology that facilitate such lives spent inside at desks. They have been contentedly swiping away at their smart phone screens. Why on earth are they coloring now?
I STARTED TRYING to write this column as though coloring books marked some unique break with our consumer-capitalist society, some unusual rejection of the modern mandate to be productive. But it has come to seem to me as if, rather, the adult coloring book craze is the result of a broader trend: a quiet rebellion against the digitization of everything. E-book sales fell in 2015, as print sales rose—especially among the young. “Unplugging”—distancing oneself from electronic devices and the internet—has become an increasingly popular effort, especially for people on vacation. Even the latest cell-phone game craze, Pokemon Go, is a technology-legitimized excuse for a walk outside. And Obama didn’t protect more smart-phone monopolies than any other US president—he protected more public land, more wilderness, more places for people to roam around outside without any explicit project.
It seems that people are beginning to question whether the ever-smoother, ever-more-efficient, ever-more-refined way of life that we’ve been crafting for ourselves is really what makes us happiest. Coloring books are clunky and unsophisticated compared to our sleek phones that can personalize games—and workout regimes and food orders and sleep schedules—to fit our tastes, but so are organic vegetables less sophisticated than genetically modified ones, and they’re more popular than ever. We seem to be rediscovering the merits of the rough and the analog. Coloring, with its black lines on a white page, with its rudimentary pencils, offers us experiences often missing in contemporary life: straightforwardness, physicality, slowness, solitude, simplicity. And after decades of working longer hours, eating more refined food, and living with more sophisticated (or is “intelligent” the word?) digital technology, simplicity seems to be precisely the order of the day.
Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue river in the summer months.