"Books v. Cigarettes" is an essay published in 1946 by the English authorGeorge Orwell. It compares the costs of reading to other forms of recreation including tobacco smoking.
Orwell states that the essay was triggered by the experience of an editor friend who was firewatching during the Second World War. He was told by factory workers that they had no interest in literature because they could not afford books.
The essay first appeared in Tribune on February 8, 1946.
Orwell questions the idea that buying or reading a book is an expensive hobby. Working out that he had 442 books in his flat and an equivalent number elsewhere, he allocates a range of prices, depending on whether the books were bought new, given, provided for review purposes, borrowed or loaned. Averaging the cost over his lifetime, and adding other incidental reading costs, he estimates his annual expenditure at £25.
In contrast, Orwell works out that before the war he was spending £20 a year on beer and tobacco and that he currently spends £40 per year on tobacco. He works out the national average spent on beer and tobacco to be £40 a year. Noting that it is difficult to establish a relationship between the price of different types of books and the value derived from them, Orwell works out that if books are read simply recreationally, the cost per hour is less than the cost of a cinema seat. Therefore, reading is one of the cheapest recreations.
And if our book consumption remains as low as it has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.
Orwell's essays in Tribune, including this, have been described in The Independent as some of the greatest essays in the English language. The question Orwell raised continues to provide a basis for discussion, as in a review of a poll in which one in four Americans read no books at all in 2007 and that chief executives claim that they have no time to read literature.
The essay was the subject of an article in Structo magazine which published 'Books v. Cigarettes: 63 years on' in their November 2009 edition.
Books v. cigarettes
George Orwell's Books v. cigarettes is a recent volume in Penguin's "Great Ideas" series. I'm a fan of Orwell's essays and, between the eye-catching title and the old-style Penguin cover design, I couldn't resist this slim volume of them. It contains a couple of my favourites, including "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," which I've quoted from here in past posts, and some I'd never read before, such as the title essay, "Books v. cigarettes." In the latter, Orwell sets out to prove that the buying and reading of books is not "an expensive hobby" that is "beyond the reach of the average person." I don't think it will ruin the suspense to tell you that he succeeds, and that he makes many entertaining observations along the way. Here's a snippet:
It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them. 'Books' includes novels, poetry, textbooks, works of reference, sociological treatises and much else, and length and price do not correspond to one another, especially if one habitually buys books second-hand. You may spend ten shillings on a poem of 500 lines, and you may spend sixpence on a dictionary which you consult at odd moments over a period of twenty years. There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later: and the cost in terms of money, may be the same in each case.
That final bit would make a fine meme don't you think? List: 1. A book you read over and over again; 2. A book that has become part of the furniture of your mind and has altered your whole attitude to life; 3. A book that you dip into but never read through; and, 4. A book that you read at a single sitting and forgot a week later. I'll have to think a bit on which book or books I'd list under each category. In the meantime though, I recommend Orwell's Books v. cigarettes as a book for dipping into and reading all the way through (and I note that at $9.99 Canadian, it doesn't cost much more than a pack of cigarettes!).