When Artie Sheldon joined the Last Bookstore in 2015, he brought with him decades of esteemed service in the book trade, and we are proud to have him on the team. Sometimes, Artie’s passion for books is so overwhelming that he feels the need to write about it, and we are happy to have his perspective. Artie would only agree to share his insight if he was given free reign over content; given the breadth and depth of his experience, we felt this was a fair trade-off. The following does not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Last Bookstore. All factual errors are the author’s own.
As a longtime bookstore employee, I have seen trends come, and I have seen them go, but there has never been anything quite like the current craze for adult coloring books. The Last Bookstore’s collection is positioned close to the front of the store, and so often are customers drawn directly to these books that I got swept up in the excitement.
I’m a busy man, and these books are touted as “therapy for busy people”. If I can derive some form of stress release from these books, then I may have finally found a trend I can support! With an open mind and an optimistic heart, I purchased four coloring books in the hopes of engaging the zeitgeist in a way that only a great literature lover such as myself really can.
THE OFFICIAL A GAME OF THRONES COLORING BOOK
It seemed to me that a good way to begin was with a “crossover” product — a coloring book that would envelope beginners in a blanket of pop culture comfort, so as to mitigate any adverse reaction that might come with exposure to new trends . The Official A Game of Thrones Coloring Book, ostensibly written by the great George R.R. Martin, seemed like just the ticket. I had not previously read anything by Mr. Martin; The Official A Game of Thrones Coloring Book, then, would kill two birds with one stone.
Unfortunately, rather than the masterwork I expected after long conversations with Game of Thrones fanatics, what I found was a hodgepodge, lacking in consistency image-wise, and narratively incoherent. Is Mr. Martin really trying to pass this work off entirely as his own? It seemed clear to me that several different artists worked on this book; I can’t imagine otherwise, as there are clear stylistic discrepancies. Preposterous that I should be asked to believe that Mr. Martin himself was responsible for both the immaculate, detailed work put into the giants and mammoths, as well as the decidedly sketchy, minimalist linework used to represent Winterfell.
If it is indeed Mr. Martin who was responsible for the artwork, I assume it is because he spent his time mastering these disparate styles rather than learning how to build a story. I simply could not follow The Official A Game of Thrones Coloring Book. Too often does Mr. Martin introduce characters and concepts without following up on his admittedly striking descriptions. Where is the complex and imaginative world-building I was promised?
Comfort level: 0 (of 5). This book left me agitated and sad for the present and future of literature. I cannot recommend it as a source of therapy.
Given my discomfort with Mr. Martin’s foray into the coloring book trend, I felt that I should continue with something a little bit different. One thing I’ve always dreamed about is extensive travel, but I’ve never really had the time. Instead, I’ve often gravitated towards books that bring the world to me in the comfort of the big leather armchair that sits in front of my grand fireplace.
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint anyone who might have been excited by that preamble, but I’m here to tell you that Splendid Cities does no such thing. While the copy on the back of the book claims that Splendid Cities “takes you from the domes of Moscow to the top of the Eiffel Tower,” I was totally unable to lose myself in the childish images that the book attaches to such lofty claims. About the time that I reached the page featuring some mad hell-scape with two seahorses blowing bubbles and floating above an odd mansion half-submerged in water, I began to think that some of the “splendid cities” might even be fictional! On top of that, there was very little in the way of information for eager travelers.
Comfort level: 0 (of 5). Once again, by the end of the book, I felt hoodwinked, and not the least bit calm.
My first two coloring book experiences were marred by falsehood and outrageous, unfulfilled claims, but I will admit that two is not a large enough sample size by which to dismiss any genre.
When I was a child, I was often sick. My mother used to read to me, every night before I’d fall into a feverish sleep, selections from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. During the deep sleeps that followed, while my body convalesced, my mind was free to roam, and mostly it roamed into Burnett’s world, where I would run and play with young Mary and Colin; together, we would heal the wounds dealt to us by cruel fate. I was excited to learn that this beautiful tale had been adapted into a coloring book. If the pop-fantasy of The Official A Game of Thrones Coloring Book could not ingratiate coloring books to me, surely The Secret Garden would not fail to unlock the pleasures of the medium.
Alas; I have been disappointed thrice over. I think I know what Johanna Basford was attempting to accomplish with her adaptation, and through her illustrations she often nails the “garden” part of the book (though I was perplexed by some of her work, including the page of beetles, and the coquettish peacock, a character I simply don’t recall from my youthful experiences with the story; I suppose it’s possible this flirty bird was added later to attract attention-poor, television addled youths). But the depth and pathos of the novel is lost in translation, and neither Mary nor Colin nor even Martha, the good-natured maid, make an appearance. Somewhere, somehow, Ms. Basford completely lost the plot, and The Secret Garden suffers for it.
Comfort level: 1 (of 5). While lush, garden images took me back to my childhood, Basford’s inability to tie her pictures to the story marred an otherwise excellent idea.
THE MINDFULNESS COLORING BOOK
Well, this one just left me totally perplexed. What am I even looking at? Seems a little experimental to me, and I imagine the mental gymnastics required to elicit any sort of narrative from what seems like a random assortment of shapes and patterns would undercut any real therapeutic benefit.
Indeed, a new thought has occurred to me: am I just supposed to be coloring these, like some child? With pencils, or crayons, or markers? I thought there had to be more to it than that, that “coloring book” meant, I don’t know, “cultural color” — something of that nature. I’m really just supposed to sit down and color in the pictures? Why in God’s name would I want to do that? I’m a grown man.
Comfort level: 0 (of 5). Well that’s just ridiculous.
Special Thanks to Manuel Chavarria for assisting Mr. Sheldon, who doesn’t much care for computers or even typing. Mr. Chavarria is presenting some of his own work this Saturday at our Rough Magick event, with Francesca Lia Block.