The other day my wife told me about a book someone mentioned to her.
I was immediately attentive, since she rarely talks about books, a topic I’m always game for.
She said that according to her friend, this book could be read by anyone of almost any age (meaning there were both pictures for toddlers and text for the rest).
It had apparently been a surprise runaway success back in October 2019, and sold a few hundred thousand copies within the first couple of months of publication, making it a top seller on Amazon and many a book store.
It was also voted a #1 bestseller by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, just to name a few.
Curious, I went to the local library and hunted it down. The title of the book was “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” by British artist-turned-author Charlie Mackesy. It looked very much like a children’s book, having pages filled with garishly drawn, mostly black and white, illustrations; all done using a brush pen technique.
About this book
[Warning: NO spoilers ahead!]
From my research, I found that the author never meant it to be a book at first.
Prior to its creation, Mackesy had been an illustrator, posting many a drawing on his Instagram account, which already had a large collection of followers (over a million at the time of this post).
To his surprise, the illustrations that comprised specifically of this book’s four characters gained legions of fans. Schools and even hospital wards everywhere were decorating their walls with them. His beautiful sketches, coupled with thought-provoking quotable quotes, really hit it off with students, teachers, patients and healthcare workers alike.
With my curiosity now truly piqued, I dived into the pages and found that there wasn’t much by way of a story in the book. It was all about the four titular characters journeying together to goodness-knows-where, all the while exchanging existential questions, answers and life experiences.
[Hmm… life experiences eh? Hey, that’s kinda what I do here too! *Broad grin*]
Nevertheless, it was immediately clear to me why the book was such a hit with many.
Aside from its obvious simplicity, both in terms of the brevity of words (one can finish the book in less than 30 minutes), and the exquisite flowing brush strokes of the pictures, it contained numerous “words of wisdom” that reminded me of car bumper stickers and tag lines on t-shirts.
Many of the wisest sayings in the book came from the mole and the horse.
Below’s a snapshot of some of their quotable quotes, each perfectly self-explanatory.
“The greatest illusion is that life should be perfect.”
“Often the hardest person to forgive is yourself.”
“Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses.”
“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid.“
“Always remember you matter, you’re important and you are loved and you bring to this world things no one else can.”
“Asking for help isn’t giving up. It’s refusing to give up.”
“When the big things feel out of control, focus on what you love right under your nose.”
“Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength not weakness.“
Why was it a success?
According to The Guardian back in November 2019, the book sold over 50,000 copies when it was published the month before. It reached #1 on Amazon, hit bestseller charts in the UK and the US, and was shortlisted for several awards. “We initially costed the book on 10,000 copies,” said publisher Joel Rickett. “Two weeks after publication we had 200,000 copies in print and were scrambling to find the capacity to print another 100,000.”
Music to the ears of any first-time author!
And really it’s not hard to understand its success, though it does say plenty too about the state of our world today.
But first, let’s explore why it was such a bestseller.
1. …simple and, more importantly (in today’s world of short attention spans), few words!
2. …beautiful illustrations lovingly hand-drawn by an accomplished artist passionate about his craft.
3. …a little boy and some animals as main characters — a tried and tested formula for success. Browse the kiddy sections of any bookstore or library if you don’t know what I mean (where HAVE you been?!).
4. …on every other page the kind of cut-and-paste nuggets of wisdom that easily fills a quotable quote poster on any Pinterest board.
5. …heartwarming and heart-wrenching lines worthy of any Hallmark greeting card.
A world needing love, companionship and acceptance
That last point is what I believe holds the key to why books like this one sell so well.
Throughout history, the world’s filled with people looking for answers to life’s meaning; for words of comfort; for the hope and belief that they aren’t alone. Everyone wants meaning in their lives, even if some don’t know it.
I’m willing to bet that the latter are the ones who buy books like this one and others like it, such as The Little Prince. They don’t quite know why, but are nonetheless inexorably drawn to these books, like bees to honey.
But the question then is: why haven’t people ‘learned and moved on’? Why this same search for the same answers year after year, decade after decade, century after century? In effect, keeping books like this on top of every bestseller list; books like this that do little other than string disparate quotes together like a mixed salad bowl, with cartoonish drawings for dressing.
[Not going all literary critic here on you — I’m hardly qualified — but you get what I mean right?]
Because, and herein lies the rub, one can only get by on so many mushy one-liners before the craving resumes afresh, oftentimes with greater intensity! Unfortunately, that usually happens when the next personal tragedy strikes, or when an overwhelming challenge takes hold.
When (not if) these disasters next occur, then what do people do?
You guessed it! They reach for yet another book about yet another Prince or Boy on a quest for life’s meaning. It’s kind of like temporary medication to ease a throbbing migraine or an upset stomach. They certainly can soothe the symptoms away for a while. But the core of the problem remains untouched.
The core of the problem
What then is the core of the problem, the billion dollar question that’s stumped many across the millennia?
While it’s beyond the scope of this post to unpack such a heavyweight question, this much I do say.
We all have a ‘vacuum’ inside us that needs to be filled. It craves meaning and purpose to our existence.
Most of all, it desires love, companionship and acceptance. Like the boy in this book, who ‘collects’ these animals along the way as though storing up as much love, companionship and acceptance as he can hold in his tiny hands.
All through the ages, many attempt to fill this vacuum with drink, drugs, fair-weather friends, material goods and wealth.
And yes, self-help life hack books too, like this one.
Don’t get me wrong. For a while all these will seem to do the trick. They give you a temporary high or a hug-your-teddy-bear cosy feeling of a moment.
But make no mistake, they eventually ‘disappear’ when the sun of life’s challenges rises up, and causes these short-lived vacuum-fillers to evaporate like the morning dew.
So what are we left with? An even greater craving for the next quick fix. Maybe the next book about a boy and a ragamuffin collection of cute animals? Or the next prince visiting from another planet with answers from on high? Or the next….?
But maybe, just maybe there is an ‘elixir’ out there that quenches our thirst permanently? Something that will forever fill that vacuum we each carry, ending our cravings once and for all, and leaving us eternally satiated.
Wouldn’t that be better than yet another boy-mole-fox-horse life hack book?