George Orwell, Books v. Cigarettes
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!