George Orwell, How the poor die (#Review)

“It is a sound instinct that warns people to keep out of hospitals if possible, and especially out of the public wards.” George Orwell may have written this in 1946, in his essay, “How the poor die”, but I can’t help thinking that it is still a sound instinct, something only too vividly confirmed by the experience of COVID-19, world-wide. How many people have contracted COVID-19 in hospital, for a start? How many hospitals have been so over-run that they’ve had patients in corridors, in foyers, in ambulances on ramps, in quickly erected marquee wards, not to mention people on the streets waiting to get in. This isn’t the experience of all patients in all hospitals in all countries, but as far as I can tell one or more of these things has happened in every place that COVID-19 has taken hold. It’s not pretty.

But, I digress. Back to Orwell. The essay was inspired by an experience he had in a public ward of a hospital in Paris in 1929, but why leave it to 1946 to publish? According to Wikipedia, the editor of Orwell’s Collected Works, Peter Davison, suggests that it may have been first written between 1931 and 1936, when Orwell was writing about “the unemployed, tramps and beggars”, and that he reworked it over 1940 to 1941. It was submitted to a journal around then but was rejected, “possibly because readers would have been unwilling to read about ‘how the poor die’ at such a time”. In the end, a section [which section, I wonder?] was retyped and it was published in November 1946.

Orwell’s experiences were awful. He had pneumonia, he says, and was placed in a packed ward – “a long, rather low, ill-lit room … with three rows of beds surprisingly close together” – and treated with cupping and a very painful mustard poultice. This, however, was not the worst of it. He describes the impersonal, disrespectful way in which the patients were treated by the doctors, medical students and nurses, the lack of basic cleanliness and care (with patients, not nurses, for example, often getting bedpans for those who couldn’t do it themselves). That this was going to be the sort of story he’d tell is heralded in the second paragraph where he describes having a bath on admission as “a compulsory routine for all newcomers, apparently, just as in prison or the workhouse”.

Anyhow, Orwell then moves on to death. He suggests that the lonely, ignored death of patient numéro 57, would be seen as “an example of a ‘natural’ death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany”. He considers it might be “better to die violently and not too old”, because, for all the horrors of war, he writes, death via a man-made weapon nowhere near “approaches in cruelty some of the commoner diseases”.

At this point, I was wondering about what hospital experiences Orwell had had, but he goes on to mention a Spanish hospital and an English cottage hospital, both of which he experienced in the 1930s. So, when he argues that the English cottage hospital was superior, he is speaking from experience. I wonder, though, whether a French cottage hospital might have been similarly decent? I don’t know.

Orwell next gives a brief history of hospitals through the nineteenth century, describing how they were places where medical students practised on the poor. He focuses on surgery, which, at that time, was “believed to be no more than a peculiarly gruesome form of sadism”. This apparently inspired a nineteenth century genre (though he doesn’t use that term) of horror-literature “connected with doctors and hospitals”. All you horror lovers will be familiar with this, I’m sure. Doctors in these stories had names like Slasher, Carver and Fillgrave. He also mentions Tennyson’s poem “The Children’s Hospital” (1880) as being part of this anti-surgery literature.

I found all this interesting, but wondered what his point was. A page or so before the end, I thought I found a hint, when, after referencing the improvements brought by anaesthetics and disinfectants, he says

Moreover, national health insurance has partly done away with the idea that a working-class patient is a pauper who deserves little consideration.

And yet … he concludes by saying that, despite improvements, hospitals are still not the best place to die, and that “the dread of hospitals probably still survives among the very poor”. It takes a long time, he implies, for past experiences and history to die out in the collective imagination. Not necessarily a bad thing, I think.

Wikipedia tells us that in 1948, two years after this story was published, and one year before Orwell died, Britain’s National Health Service was established “as publicly-funded medical provision for all”. The person behind it was the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, who had once been Orwell’s colleague at the Tribune.

Previous reviews from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, “The prevention of literature” and “My country right of left“?

George Orwell
“How the poor die” (orig. 1946, in Now)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 50-64
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

George Orwell, My country right or left (#Review)

Having recently posted on the fourth essay, “The prevention of literature“, in my book of George Orwell essays, I’ve decided to plough on and try to finish it. The next essay is the short, cleverly titled, “My country right or left”. It was first published in Autumn 1940 in Folios of new writing.

It’s a curious little essay. I’m going to introduce it by sharing the Orwell quote used by the Orwell Foundation under its banner: “What I have most wanted to do… is to make political writing into an art”. You can certainly tell from “The prevention of literature” that he sees literature as being necessarily political. That essay was written in 1946, just after World War 2 had ended. “My country right or left” was first published just one year into this war – and is politically-driven.

The essay starts with:

Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present. If it seems so it is because when you look backward things that happened years apart are telescoped together, and because very few of your memories come to you genuinely virgin. It is largely because of the books, films and reminiscences that have come between that the war of 1914-18 is now supposed to have had some tremendous, epic quality that the present one lacks.

I wasn’t sure at all, from this opening, where it was going. Soon, however, it’s clear that war is the driver for the essay which turns out to be about Orwell trying to rationalise, or work through, his socialist beliefs, his previously avowed pacifism, and his patriotism (and thus support for the war).

He writes about being a middle-class school boy during World War 1 and being oblivious to what was happening, particularly to “the true significance” of the big events. He writes:

The Russian Revolution, for instance, made no impression, except on the few whose parents happened to have money invested in Russia. 

I’m sure that’s not unusual! He talks about how pacifism

had set in long before the war ended. To be as slack as you dared on O.T.C. parades, and to take no interest in the war was considered a mark of enlightenment.

Interestingly, however, this pacifism, he says, gradually gave way to a certain nostalgia in those who had not experienced the war! He suggests that this was why his generation was so interested in the Spanish Civil War. He then moves onto World War 2, to the growing awareness in the mid-1930s that it was coming and – this is his main point – his realisation that he “was patriotic at heart” and “would support the war”.

Orwell’s sees this as a no-brainer. He says:

If I had to defend my reasons for supporting the war, I believe I could do so. There is no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering to him, and from a Socialist point of view I should say that it is better to resist; in any case I can see no argument for surrender that does not make nonsense of the Republican resistance in Spain, the Chinese resistance to Japan, etc. etc. 

But, he admits that this support stemmed primarily from “the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through”. The drilling had, he said, “done its work … once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage”. This patriotism, however, in not incompatible, he argues, with his socialist view that “only revolution can save England”. That “has been obvious for years”. “To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility”, he writes, but it is, in fact, a fact, because such dual loyalties were happening everyday. Revolution could not happen with Hitler in control, so, Hitler must be resisted.

His final point is to criticise the left-wing intellectuals who do not understand this, though his method is curious. He turns to the idea of “patriotism”, arguing that “patriotism” should not be equated with “conservatism”, because, unlike “conservatism”, “patriotism” can encompass change. Indeed, he proposes that “socialism” can grow out of the emotions that underpin “patriotism”, whether “the boiled rabbits of the Left” like it or not.

So, curiously argued perhaps, but I can imagine the socialist-leaning, middle-class raised, intellectually open Orwell wanting to nut out how to marry his socialist beliefs with the very real threats his imperfect Britain was facing – and coming up with something confronting, but true.

Wikipedia writes that “according to his notes to his literary executor in 1949”, this was one of three essays that he did not want reprinted after his death. I can sort of see why, and I don’t know why the executor didn’t respect this. However, I do like the insight this essay provides into how Orwell thought, and that it shows him to be an independent thinker, rather than a parroter of received truths.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, “Confessions of a book reviewer“, and “The prevention of literature“.

George Orwell
“My country right or left” (orig. 1940)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

George Orwell, The prevention of literature (#Review)

One of the reasons a work becomes a classic is its timelessness, its continued relevance to each period in which it is read. This is certainly why many of George Orwell’s works are seen as classics. Scarily, there is nothing more relevant now than his writing on the impact of totalitarianism – of which his 1946 essay, “The prevention of literature”, is one example.

The essay starts by responding to a PEN meeting that was held on the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica. Milton defends, Orwell writes, “the freedom of the press”, and he was concerned that not one of several hundred people present “could point out that the freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose”.

Orwell continues to say that there are two main threats to “the idea of intellectual liberty”: the theoretical enemies, or proponents of totalitarianism; and, the immediate, practical enemies, bureaucracy and monopoly. He spends little time on this latter, but I’ll mention it because it is as valid now as it was then. He sumarises it as:

the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, and the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books.

I’m not sure how the last of these stands now, but I believe Australians are buying books, and particularly did so during the pandemic. However, his first two points are certainly still valid concerns, eight decades later.

Orwell’s prime focus, however, was the impact of totalitarianism on intellectual freedom, and thus on literature. He spends some time discussing attacks on freedom of thought and the press. He argues that

in the foreground the controversy over freedom of speech and the press is at bottom a controversy over the desirability or otherwise of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the bias and self deception in which every observer necessarily suffers.

I love this qualification, but I think you can see where this is going in terms of my opening paragraph. I’m not going to write a treatise on this, but Russian-American Masha Gessen wrote a response to it in The New Yorker, in 2018, which is well worth reading for their historical understanding of where Orwell was coming from as well as for their commentary on its relevance to how. They wrote that:

We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.

What Gessen is referring to here is, first, the point that Orwell makes about totalitarianism’s “disbelief in the very existence of objective truth” – its lack of interest in “truthfulness” – and, second, its quashing of the “imagination” which is fundamental to literature.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism engenders instability, that totalitarians alter their perspectives at a moment’s notice to suit the prevailing situation. Such a society, he writes, “can never permit either the truthful recoding of facts, or the emotional sincerity, that literary creation demands”. You don’t have to be in a totalitarian state for this to happen, he adds. This problem can also occur wherever there is “an enforced orthodoxy – or even two orthodoxies”, where you cannot write sincerely. This point, I think, is worth considering in terms of “rules” about who can write what. I am certainly sympathetic to the concern about people’s stories being appropriated and, more problematically, being over-ridden, but there are many stories and “truths”, and sincere (I like this word) writing about them should be welcomed and respected. We learn about ourselves through the give-and-take, the conversation, that the arts facilitates. It is truly positive that we are now hearing more voices – this is what we must encourage and protect – but it would be dangerous if all these voices were confined to boxes.

Related to this is Orwell’s understanding of literature. He writes that “above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience”. For him, essentially all literature – particularly “prose literature” – is political in some sense. He says “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness”. It sounds very much like our time.

Finally, after some other fascinating discussions – some of which made sense, some less so to me, such as his discussion of verse – he concludes that “a bought mind is a spoilt mind” and that “the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”.

“The prevention of literature”, although written at a very particular point in world history, turned out to be more relevant than I would have hoped possible. It raises many questions about the threats we are currently facing to intellectual liberty and freedom of expression, and thus, to “truthfully” reporting, to “sincerely” questioning, what we see happening.

Previous reviews of essays from this book: “Books v. Cigarettes“, “Bookshop memories“, and “Confessions of a book reviewer“.

George Orwell
“The prevention of literature” (orig. 1946)
in Books v. cigarettes (Great Ideas)
London: Penguin Books, 2008
pp. 21-41
ISBN: 9780141036618

Available online at the Orwell Foundation.

George Orwell’s Politics and the English language

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

I was reminded of George Orwell’s rules for writing this weekend while reading an article about the German architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983). In her article, “New guides to Bath: Society and scene in Northanger Abbey, Judy Stove-Wilson wrote that

Pevsner noted the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables. He regarded this as symptomatic of ‘understatement, the aversion against fuss, the distrust of rhetoric’ (Pevsner, The Englishness of English art, 1956, p. 13).

The reason I was reading this article, as you’ve probably guessed from the title, is because my local Jane Austen group is currently discussing Northanger Abbey. Pevsner wrote in 1968 an oft-quoted article on Austen, “The architectural setting of Jane Austen’s novels”. He, keenly interested in architecture, was critical of Austen’s minimal descriptions of buildings in her novels, though he was impressed with her knowledge of and use of Bath in her novels – and of course much of Northanger Abbey is set in Bath.

But, I’m digressing. My inspiration for this post is his comment on “the strong tendency of English towards monosyllables”. It made me chuckle given the German language’s predilection for multisyllabic words. It also reminded me of Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English language” and his 6 rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

No. 2, of course, is the one I was remembering.

However, on returning to the essay to check Orwell’s actual rules, I realised that the whole essay is worth reading again, because in our world of “alternative facts” Orwell’s words on the relationship between politics and language are as relevant today as when he wrote them 70 years ago. He writes that, paradoxically, our language

becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

This is reversible, he believes, and reversing it is critical because good writing enables clear thinking, and the ability “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”. I should clarify, if you don’t already know, that his target is factual, and particularly “political writing”, not “the literary use of language” by which, presumably, he means creative or fictional writing.

Later in the essay he makes very clear why he is writing it, and you’ll quickly see why I’m sharing it now:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called “pacification”. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called “transfer of population” or “rectification of frontiers”. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called “elimination of unreliable elements”.

Hmm … I bet everyone reading this can think of their own contemporary examples. Please share them if you like!

I won’t write more on the essay, as my main aim was simply to share its continuing relevance. I’ll just leave you with a sentence from his last paragraph:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

That George Orwell. He really was something.

George Orwell
“Politics and the English language” 1946

Monday musings on Australian literature: Where is Australia’s George Orwell?

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

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

In a comment on my review last week of Kate Grenville’s One life, Lisa (ANZLitLovers) asked “Where’s Australia’s George Orwell?”. This was in reference to the idea that more novelists should write about climate change to help change public opinion. Interesting question, I thought, and one that I could explore in a Monday Musings. You might all be relieved, in fact, to have something different from my recent list-focused musings.

Before I answer the question – and then throw it open to you – it would be sensible to clarify my understanding of the question. (See, I’ve been well-grounded in essay skills: first, define your terms!) To put it simply, I believe Lisa was asking where is the Australian author who is driven to identify injustice, oppose inhumanity, and promote social conscience? That is, an author like Orwell – the man who coined terms like “cold war”, “big brother” and “thought police”, the man who used satire, allegory and other rhetorical devices in his fiction and non-fiction to show us the error of our ways. I hope this is what Lisa meant; this is, anyhow, how I am reading her question.

An Australian Orwell?

Well, a name did pop immediately into my head – Thea Astley. Of course, she’s dead, but so is George Orwell. I suspect Lisa was looking for a living Orwell to speak to us right now on “now” topics”, but, bear with me anyhow.

Astley, like Orwell, wrote in multiple forms – novels, short stories, essays – though Astley didn’t write the sorts of personal experience memoirs that Orwell did in books like Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. And, unlike Orwell who travelled far and wide, physically and with his pen, Astley’s works were firmly based on Australia. But, like Orwell, she had an acerbic eye and a satiric pen, and she used it to good effect.

Ashley was also a wordsmith, albeit of a different sort to Orwell. She used words that frequently sent (and still send) her readers to the dictionary, and her passion was to “carve a good sentence”.

So far so good. However, having considered Astley, I’m now going to, reluctantly, reject her as our George Orwell. Not because she isn’t a satirist because she is, but because her satire isn’t as explicitly political as his. She was interested in the treatment of outcasts and misfits, regardless of the reason for their “otherness”, which could be race, religion, economic status, age, gender, and so on.  She satirised suburban and small town life, particularly in her first novels. She also tackled more political issues such as white Australia’s treatment of indigenous people in A kindness cup and It’s raining in mango. In Coda she satirised the treatment of ageing. And in her last novel, Drylands, issues like gender, power, modern technology, and sport attracted the attention of her sharp pen.

Astley was surely aware of the political implications of the issues she targeted, but she didn’t explicitly focus on the politics. She was, I think, more interested in the social, cultural and personal ramifications of the behaviours she put before us.

We certainly have political satirists, but they tend to be performers rather than authors.

In 2013, the Sydney Writers’ Festival included a panel discussion titled  The Satirists, which asked the question:

If Australians claim to be anti-authoritarian rabble-rousers, where is the canon of contemporary satirical novels reflecting this stereotype? What are the satirical traditions in Australian literature?

The panel included novelist David Foster, actor/novelist/memoirist William McInnes and poet Alan Wearne. I haven’t read Foster (my bad, I know) or Alan Wearne. And, I don’t think McInnes’ brand of humour, entertaining though it is, is quite what Lisa was asking. Contemporary writers I’ve read included Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan who have written some satirical novels but they are not known primarily as satirists.

So, is there anyone else – writing now – who is making it his or her business to tackle the big questions of our time, questions to do with refugees, indigenous dispossession, climate change? In Australia, or elsewhere?

POSTSCRIPT: I had just scheduled this post for publishing when up popped a blog post from today’s The Guardian. Written by Sam Twyford-Moore and titled “Why so serious: does Australian literature have a funny person problem?”, it starts with the following:

Australian authors show off their satirical chops on social media every day. So why doesn’t more of that wit spill on to the published page?

Of course, not all satire is “funny”, but, regardless, he doesn’t have an answer.

George Orwell, Confessions of a book reviewer

It’s been a while since I wrote on a George Orwell essay so it seemed – while I’m still reading my current read – to be a good time to do another. And what better, given my recent “how to write a book review” post, than to do Orwell’s essay on book reviewing.

Book Stack

Books (Courtesy: OCAL, from clker.com)

Orwell, as usual, makes you laugh. The essay starts off describing a rather seedy sounding person who is either malnourished or, if he’s recently had a lucky break, is suffering from a hangover. This person, Orwell says, is a writer. Could be any writer, he says, but let’s say he’s a reviewer. Yes, let’s, I thought, this could be interesting. This poor reviewer has a bundle of books from his editor who says that  they “ought to go well together”. They are:

“Palestine at the Cross Roads” [the essay is dated 1946! Oh dear], “Scientific Dairy Farming”, “A Short History of European Democracy” (this one is 680 pages and weighs four pounds [the satire is not necessarily subtle!], “Tribal Customs in Portuguese East Africa”, and a novel, “It’s Nicer Lying Down” (probably included by mistake).

(Note: Square brackets, me; round ones, George)

He goes on to say that, for a few of these, this reviewer knows little and so will need to read enough to avoid making some howler which will betray him to the author and the general reader. See my “How to review post” and the injunction to “Be accurate”! Harriet and I were serious! And then he describes how, at the last minute, just before the deadline, the reviewer will produce something:

All the stale old phrases – ‘a book that no one should miss’, ‘something memorable on every page’, ‘of special value are the chapters dealing with, etc etc’ – will jump into place like iron filings obeying the magnet.

Remember what Harriet and I said about adjectives? That goes for clichéd phrases too. He says that “the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books … not only involves the praising of trash … but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatsoever”.

To remedy this, he suggests that non-fiction books would be best reviewed by an expert in the subject and that novel reviewing could be done well by amateurs, but concludes that this is all too hard to organise so the editor “always finds himself reverting to his team of hacks”.

And then, here comes the crunch. He says:

None of this is remediable so long as it is taken for granted that every book deserves to be reviewed.

His preference is that we should ignore the majority of books “and give very long reviews – 1000 words is a bare minimum – to the few that seem to matter”.  He goes on to say that it is useful to publish short announcements of forthcoming books, but that 600 word reviews (even of books the reviewer likes) are “bound to be worthless”. (Phew, mine here tend to be around 1000 words, give or take! But, I do also think that there is something to be said for succinctness.)

There is a little more but this is the gist. Don’t you think Orwell would be rather fascinated to see today’s rather anarchic world of litblogs where amateur reviewers are doing exactly what he said – and where publishers, even if not newspaper and magazine editors – are starting to see the benefit of people reviewing books they want to review. Of course, he may not like the potential impact on his professional reviewer income stream, but them’s the breaks!

George Orwell, Bookshop memories

I do like to read a bit of Orwell every now and then – and for that reason, though I have other books of his to read in my TBR pile, I recently bought his essay collection, Books v. cigarettes, in Penguin’s delightful Great Ideas series. I blogged about the first essay a couple of months ago. Tonight I decided to read the second essay, “Bookshop memories”, in which he draws on his experience of working in a second-hand bookshop. It was published in 1936.

There’s a nice little Wikipedia article about the essay, giving the background to his writing it and a brief summary of its content, so I won’t repeat all that again here. Rather, I’ll just comment on a couple of observations he makes that tickled my fancy, and these relate to one of the sidelines of the bookshop: its lending library. He says that in a lending library “you see people’s real tastes and not their pretended (my emphasis) ones, and so, he notes that:

  • “classical English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen*, Trollope etc into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out”. Dickens, he says, “is one of those authors people are ‘always meaning to read'”
  • there is a growing unpopularity of American books (but he doesn’t give any reason for this)
  • people don’t like short stories because, for some, “it is too much fag to get used to a new set of characters with every story”. Orwell says on this one that the blame lies as much with the writers as the readers: “Most modern short stories, English and American”, he says, “are utterly lifeless and worthless”. Those that “are stories”, such as by D.H. Lawrence, are, he says, “popular enough”.

I don’t think the second point is true today (at least in Australia), but I suspect that the first and third still have some credence. Again and again I hear in bookgroups, “let’s not do a classic” and “I don’t like short stories”. Of course, there are exceptions (moi, for example!) but I think the rule still applies. Will it be ever thus?

* Have you noticed how Jane Austen is more often than not referred to with both her names while the fellas often aren’t? We comfortably talk about Shakespeare, Dickens, and Wordsworth, but far less so of Austen. Chivalry? Sexism? Odd isn’t it?

George Orwell, Books v. Cigarettes

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

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!