Books Vs Cigarettes Essay Definition

George Orwell, 1933 (Presumed Public Domain, from Wikipedia)

We all do it! That is, we say we haven’t got the time to do something or we can’t afford something when in fact we really could if we changed our priorities. This idea is the inspiration for George Orwell’s essay titled “Books v. Cigarettes” (written in 1946). It all started when a newspaper editor told him of some factory workers who said that they read the newspaper but not the literary section because “Why, half the time you’re talking about books that cost twelve and sixpence! Chaps like us couldn’t spend twelve and sixpence on a book”. Orwell’s response is to examine what he believes is a widespread view (in 1940s England anyhow) “that the buying, or even the reading, of books is an expensive hobby and beyond the reach of the average person”.

He does this by attempting to ascertain how much his own reading costs him.  You can read the details in the essay (it’s a short one) here. In short, he decides that he averages £25 per year on his reading habit, but £40 on smoking. And this, he says, is based on buying not borrowing books which would of course significantly reduce the cost of his reading. He then tries to establish a relationship between the “cost” of reading and the “value” you get from it, but realises how difficult it is to apply a value across the board. As he says

There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind [my emphasis] 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…

How do you value these different experiences? He decides to avoid this tricky problem and just estimate what it costs to treat reading as simple entertainment, so he divides the average price of a book by the average time it takes to read one and discovers that this cost compares favourably with going to the cinema. And of course, he says, if you bought second hand books or borrowed them, the cost of reading would compare even more favourably.

Finally, he presents the rough estimate that only 3 books are bought per person per year in Britain. A woeful situation he says in a society which is nearly 100% literate. And his conclusion?

…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.

Thanks to George Orwell, next time I go to buy that case of wine, I see that I will have to stop and think about whether I should buy a few books instead!

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George Orwell's initial anecdote in "Books vs. Cigarettes" regards the opinion that books are an expensive hobby, one that is out of reach for the common, middle-class person. Orwell proceeds to use himself as an above-average consumer of books and summarizes the types and general cost of the books he owns; roughly 900, collected over the course of fifteen years. After estimating the cost, he posits that he has spent about £25 GBP per year on the books; a below-average reader would spend less. He then compares his book expenditures to his recreational expenditures:

With prices as they now are, I am spending far more on tobacco than I do on books. I smoke six ounces a week, at half-a-crown an ounce, making nearly £40 a year.
[...]
Forty pounds a year would just about pay for a packet of Woodbines every day and half a pint of mild six days a week -- not a magnificent allowance. Of course, all prices are now inflated, including the price of books: still, it looks as though the cost of reading... does not amount to more than the combined cost of smoking and drinking.
(Orwell, "Books vs. Cigarettes," george-orwell.org)

His essential argument is that books are a lasting resource, unlike cigarettes, which are used up and must be repurchased. Books provide continual usage until they wear out, which could take many years, and his spending £25 on lasting books every year is far less than the £40 per year on consumable alcohol and tobacco. Orwell also points out that library books cost significantly less, and one can sell a stock of purchased books for about a third of their original price, thus receiving the entertainment and eduction of the book while regaining some of the cost; this stands opposed to cigarettes, which are bought and smoked, after which both money and cigarette are gone forever.

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