Monthly Archives: March 2011

If you’ve been following my  posts here on #textpatois, you’ve noticed a few posts about a slim collection of George Orwell essays titled Books v. Cigarettes.  In this post here, we’re going to do the same experiment that George Orwell did: we’re going to compare average book consumption with cigarette consumption.  As opposed to letting the domain of the problem range from lifetimes, we’re going to examine the cost of books versus the cost of cigarettes bounded by four years (college).  We’ll compare a smoker and reader, and, assuming that these are the same people, we’ll examine whether an average smoker and an average reader spend the same money on books v. cigarettes.

Let’s take our reader/smoker.  Let’s call him Obama.  If Obama were going to school today, he’d most likely smoke 5-6 cigarettes a day, quoted himself. (Who ever said that Obama wasn’t a bad influence on college students today !)  At 5 cigarettes a day, a smoker will smoke a pack in four days (20 cigarettes in a pack) which would be equivalent to 91.25 packs a year. At 6 dollars a pack of cigarettes, Obama will spend $546.50 dollars a year and $2190 over four years of college on cigarettes.

Obama’s course load is going to be harder to quantify.   First we should acknowledge that Obama may be taking classes or may be out of school for these four years, so we’ll have to assess two situations. First, Obama is in school and has to buy school books, which may be more expensive than mass-market books.  Second, Obama is not in school, but still reads a good deal and must pay for these books himself.  We’re assuming that the library and book-thievery is out of the option, although these practices are becoming more common.

There are also a few issues surrounding the type of book and cost-per-word.  Long manuals on scientific procedures and concepts are expensive and often required for courses in the sciences.  Some biology textbooks cost upwards of $200, and they’re updated every year, so there is no resale value for the text.  It makes the $5.99 Penguin Merchant of Venice seem like a bargain.

So let’s assume that Obama takes a balanced course load of Politics classes, Economics classes, some humanity class (english, comparative literature, black studies) and a science course.  We’ll look at the books he buys for this one semester and extrapolate it to 8 semesters to get a good idea of how much money he spends on school books.

Politics  – two short technical books for approx. $30, or one book on a specific topic for $68
Economics – one major text —  $138
Black Studies 101 — several little texts — six at approx. $10 each
Biology — one major text — $211.07, not counting the study guide.

But those are just Obama’s schoolbooks. Assuming he does no other reading (an assumption that should be challenged) this type of courseload will cost him $477.07 a semester, and over a year it will cost him $954.14 dollars.  Over a four year college career, it’s $3816.56, which is more than the cost of cigarettes over the same time.  But these are schoolbooks.

What about the reading Obama does for fun or for personal edification?  It’s hard to find reliable statistics about how many books the average American reads per year or day or minute or hour, but Obama’s not an average American.  He’s a voracious reader.   Notable literary Junot Diaz has been famously quoted that he always recommends “52 books a year is the bare minimum for proper mental functioning.”  I’d hate to think Obama doesn’t have proper mental functioning.  Let’s say he reads 52 books a year for fun or because it’s recommended by policy types.  These are mostly recent publications, because he wants to support our publishing industry.   The average price of these publications is between 6-16 dollars, so let’s settle on 12 dollars a week.  The book Obama reads on a weekly basis is about 12 dollars.  That means that he spends $624 every year on pleasurable reading, which compares negatively to cigarettes.  But if we take a per/minute comparison, the book is solidly the better choice.  If it takes 180 minutes (a short estimate) to read a book and 5 minutes to smoke a cigarette, it’s easy to see that books are much less costly entertainment option.

Consider a third option.  The lowest-end Kindle is now $140 dollars, and because everyone and their mother (hi mom!) received a Kindle for christmas, e-book sales are way, way up. E-book sales save the consumer already (price comparison) but with e-book sales rising, so is e-book piracy. Not everything is available in e-book form, but most new releases are.  If Obama was to steal his books, and e-pirate his reading for the year, if he were to steal 52 books (at cost=0) and read them all, and the entry-level Kindle is $140, then each book he reads would just be the fixed cost of the Kindle.  Over a year of reading stolen books + public domain books, it would cost him $2.69 per book and $140 dollars per year.

And of course, if you get a library card, it’s (mostly) all free.  Just some food for thought.  Go eat some books!om nom nom

I admit it – I play table tennis.  I go to practice weekly and play in tournaments.  I’ve found it to be a minor but enjoyable and worthwhile part of my life.   For two hours every week, I work on my forehand stroke; my backhand loop; chops and pushes.  I’ve actually consulted a playing manual to improve my form.  I saw Everything You Know Is Pong and thought for a moment.  Why should I read a book on the noble sport of table tennis that calls it ping pong?  With a goofy cover, no less. 

But then I saw that this recently released book was written by Eli Horowitz, editor of McSweeney’s literary journal, because it said it on the cover.  Eli Horowitz does the graphic design for the book, and it’s beautiful.  Nestled between pages of text are blocks of photos and artifacts that follow certain themes, like art inspired by ping pong, or alcohol advertisements that feature ping pong.  The center spread is a series of photos of naked people playing ping pong.  Barack Obama wrote a form letter when he was Senator of Illinois commending table tennis players taking part in a Chicago tournament and that’s included as well.  Some are historical photos; others are found photos from the bottom of a cardboard box and bought at a flea market. 

Between these caches of visual material, there are a lot of words as well.  There are eight parts written by Roger Bennett, the other author.  Although his eight sections have a slight narrative track, they’re more like eight separate essays, each investigating a different connection between the world at large and our humble sport.  For instance, chapter two explores the connections between the American suburb and table tennis whereas chapter six discusses China’s role in the sport.  After each chapter is a short creative piece about the sport written by a prominent writer.  Jonathan Safran Foer contributes a really awesome psychedelic poem-narrative.

And throughout the whole work what is evident is the love of the game.  Some of the writers may not be as good as me, and some may beat me in straight games.  Some may understand the difference between topspin and backspin (at least I hope.)  But regardless of your skill level, ping pong is hip these days, and it’s a great game.  Everything You Know Is Pong is an enjoyable read with some literary cred and some really great photos.  But of course, if you don’t care about ping pong, well, you’re wrong.  You do.

The first part of my True Prep review is here.  In that review, I expressed disappointment about the levels of “tokenism” under the guise of multiculturalism.  I also noted that this could be a result of the constraints of writing about a by-definition reclusive and inclusive subculture, but it wasn’t really a focused study at all—it was more of a magazine spread; a book that was not about the content but rather the products that you (an aspiring prep) could buy to become more “prep.”  The reason for a consumer to buy this volume is to acquire a basic understandings of the cultural norms and manners of the old-money set. 

An example:


logology_true prep

If you embiggen the image (click on it) you’ll also see our first example of #textpatois!

Quote:  “This is when we would write LOL, except we loathe LOL.”  Preps (or Lisa Birnbach’s impression of preps) loathe internet speak, thus referred to as #textpatois.  Send in all your favorite examples of #textpatois!

So I went to my local public library to find a copy of The Official Preppy Handbook, published over 30 years earlier and very difficult to find a copy of.  I wanted to compare my complaints with True Prep’s modern commercialism vs. the original text.  I suspected that True Prep is mostly recycled content from the original book, which, although would focus much less on minorities and “oppressed peoples,” would be a more insightful look into the subculture that ”never changes. Ever.”

The first difference between the two preppy-focused books is during the table of contents.  True Prep, the newer volume, has a heavy dose of snark in almost all headlines and opening sentences for chapers.  Chapter II in the Preppy Handbook is called “The Root of All Prep: The Years at School.”  Descriptive and succinct, it raises my ire significantly less than chapter 3 in True Prep: “That’s where my brother went: schools: pre-nursery to grade 20.”  It’s these kind of tossed-off Gawker headline rejects that caused my very preppy friend from Bethesda, MD to declare True Prep “”disgusting.”

Another interesting difference between the two books is that Preppy Handbook spends a lot more time discussing drinking, and drinking to excess as a token of social capital in the preppy world.  True Prep spends much less time discussing discreet ways to imbibe large amounts of alcohol.  Quotes!

Preppy Handbook, in the section “A preppy value system: Before Truth, the Right Fork:”

“Four: Drinking.  A preppy’s ambition is directed toward imbibition.”

True Prep, in a graphical spread comparing what preppies wear on casual friday vs. Saturday.  A man is holding a drink in one hand an a tennis raquet in the other.


“G&T.  I’m taking a break from my break.”

Preppy Handbook, in a similar graphical spread detailing what any given prep would wear for a garden occasion in the autumn of a man’s life.

“Bags under eyes from too much drinking.”

There’s even a little part in TP about beer pong etiquette, which wasn’t even invented when Preppy Handbook was published.  Aside from that, the attitude towards drinking in TP is much more guarded, and encouragement of wanton drunkenness is much more ambiguous. In Preppy Handbook, however, there’s a whole section called “deviant behavior.”  Based on this one observation alone, the handbook wins out. 

The fashion advice is largely the same, but the handbook doesn’t mention labels as a reason d’etre, so it wins on that category.  Also, the chapter about debutante balls (not covered as in-depth in TP) was absolutely fascinating and worth the price of admission on its own.  There are no Asian or black people in the photos/drawings/prep hall of fame in the earlier text, but I almost prefer that, as to keep the subculture pure.  I’d be pretty upset if I bought a lookbook of hip-hop styles and there were white people in almost every photo. 



Therefore, I recommend reading The Official Preppy Handbook if you were looking to learn more about preppy fashion and manners.  Please stay away from True Prep—it’s a flawed attempt to capitalize monetarily on a trend, and the writing suffers as a result.  Plus, in Preppy Handbook, they mention Oberlin as a school which is “out-of-the-league,” meaning very, very unpreppy.

I buried a link in my last post that probably should be seen more. 

The 10 Best Great Ideas Covers



Bonus:  All the Great Ideas covers (hat tip to A. Trubek)

Another interesting thing to consider about the Great Books series is that these beautiful covers are simply to doll up a volume.  Most of the books in Penguin’s Great Idea Series are public domain, and looking up a public domain text is often as easy as a Google search.  As rapper Tyler, the Creator puts it, “That Is What Google Is For.”

This brings up several questions.  Why continue selling public domain books?  Essentially, at one level, the publisher is convincing people to pay for something that is free, like water.  Is the publication of, for instance, Machiavelli’s The Prince like bottled water?  Bottled water has been called the “commoditization of a human right,” but there are many examples of where bottled water is more useful than running water–in disaster situations or sporting events, for example.  The parallel in books would be in classrooms–not everyone is going to bring a laptop to class or want to print out hundreds of pages of essays for multiple students. 

Or these beautifully designed covers could add some additional utility to the work contained within.  Utility that looks right on a bookshelf, saying “look at these Great Ideas that I’ve considered.”

But then they become less than what they were intended to be.  They become collectables, and we know you can’t collect ideas.  Well, you can, but it’s a lot more difficult than going to the local bookstore and plunking down five pounds.

But the true cost of reading will be explored in part 3 of the Books v. Cigarettes review.



ALSO: Excellent newly published DFW short story: Backbone.  Published last week, and Howling Fantods already has a comparison of the story to a similar story he read in 2000.

In last week’s post I covered a slender British volume of George Orwell’s essays called Books v. Cigarettes.  The post primarily covered the physical aspects of the book, and how the combination of its graphic design and provocative title that lent itself to, well, literally lending itself.  I borrowed the book from a friend and I had a friend who visited this weekend who went directly to the book on my bookshelf and declared, “I’m borrowing this.”

So I’d have to agree with Orwell when he says in “Books v. Cigarettes” (the essay) that “book-giving, book-borrowing and bookstealing more or less even out.” 

The complete content of Books v. Cigarettes

Even though I no longer have the physical book itself, the essays are widely available online.  The book contains just seven essays, “Books v. Cigarettes,” “Bookshop Memories,” “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” “The Prevention of Literature,” “My Country Right or Left,” “How the Poor Die,” and “Such, Such Were The Joys.”

The first three essays are book-related and will inform the focus of my criticism. 

“Books v. Cigarettes” consists of a thought exercise undertaken by George Orwell.  Inspired by factory laborers who tell him that books are too expensive to be a hobby for people like them, Orwell goes about taking an appraisal of his books, both in terms of how he acquired them and then later in terms of their monetary value.  Although Orwell notes that he bought a good deal of them secondhand, received them as gifts or read them as galley proofs for a review, he tabulates all values at new retail value and compares that to the amount of money he spends yearly on cigarettes and alcohol.  

His logic is as follows:  he reads a lot of books AND smokes a lot of cigarettes, and so if it’s less expensive for him to read at full price than to smoke, it must be therefore generally true for the average British citizen.  Orwell’s tabulated weekly cost of reading is “at present.. the equivalent of about 83 cigarettes (Players).”

Orwell concludes that reading is a generally inexpensive pastime as compared to smoking or drinking, and he goes farther to note that “if you borrow [books] from the public library, it costs you next door to nothing.”

Of course there are parallels

The most interesting thing I found about the first three essays was that many of Orwell’s observations about readers hue closely to current lamentations of book culture.  Perhaps the sky isn’t falling; (non)readers (=people) have always been lazy and inclined not to read, even as literacy rates reached 100% in the developed world.   Orwell describes in “Bookshop Memories,” that the lending library at the used bookstore revealed patrons’ true taste: “one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘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. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say, ‘Oh, but that’s old!’ and shy away immediately.”  He also has an interesting comment on the preponderance of women literature majors: “Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel – the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel – seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific.”

In “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” Orwell laments the fact that book reviews are too short. Book reviews are too short because they are used as a way to gauge whether a book is worth buying as opposed to an exploration of a volume’s themes and ideas.  Perhaps if books were close to free as possible and the costs of publishing were close to free, we’d see a burst in small, self-published reviewers writing in depth reviews of books. 

Maybe today, the reason that no one is reading is the internet, but Orwell remarks that “reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub.”  So maybe the declarations of the book’s demise were premature back then as they are now.

The last time I impulse-bought a book with “prep” in its title was this, and that turned out pretty well.  So I couldn’t resist picking up True Prep: It’s a Whole New World the last time I was in a mass-market bookstore.True-Prep-Giveaway-1

A few months ago as I was researching which madras fabrics to wear during which occasions, some searching showed the answers were in this old book called the Official Preppy Handbook. The Official Preppy Handbook was published in 1981 and detailed the fashion, social and lifestyle norms of a very specific subculture, alternately (sometimes derisively) called WASP or old-money or ivy league. Birnbach called it preppy and celebrates it in her books. 

Despite the fact that it had been a bestseller for 65 weeks in 1980, finding a copy was difficult.  The Official Preppy Handbook had been out of print for years, and sellers on Amazon were selling old copies for as much as $200.  Demand for the old text had outstripped supply.

Enter True Prep published in 2010 by Knopf.  It’s an updated version of that 1981 classic, with new sections on internet etiquette, cell phones and whatever has changed in the old money world in the past thirty years.  Advice is given in blurb-length sections with pithy titles like “Just like family.” or “Uh-oh #4: Mummy is now a yogini/healer/shaman.” 

The first sentence of “Just like family?” Your first hire: the cleaning lady.

While the book is an entertaining read and does give great advice at times—“the best fashion statement is no fashion statement”—the entire concept has two primary faults.  First, it is difficult to celebrate a dominant white culture without seeming exclusionary at best and potentially elitist at worst.  Second, while the book does a good job of highlighting old preppy fashion, it from time to time can turn into something of a shopping blog or series of advertisements.  

Efforts to add multicultural people to the staged pictures used to break up the text on the page seem forced.  After a lengthy section about which shore or resort town was most fitting for you, Birnbach includes a page on historically black shore destinations.  However, she doesn’t really acknowledge why historically black shore destinations exist—the same white preppies that she celebrates were not inclusive in their own seaside towns.  There are other examples of “tokenism”—like in the “Pantheon of Preps” the vast overwhelming majority are white.  Although there are some inclusions of gay (and Jewish) notables (like Leonard Bernstein) it is always pointed out that the yare a minority.

And come on—I don’t need a two-page spread about every option in the Burberry trench coat line.  It looked like a glossy ad in a fashion magazine, but in a (hardback) book I (foolishly) bought (at full price.)

On Sunday the world lost a notable book lover.  Suze Rotolo focused, during her art career, on exploring the idea of books as artifacts and as art themselves—whether that means the cover, or the binding, or the total heft of the book as important in and of themselves.  She believed that books weren’t just conveyances for words and pictures, but rather had intrinsic value simply by being bound.  In short, she was the kind of thinker who appreciated the concept of the e-book, but would argue that the printed word remains important. 

Because of Suze Rotolo, the first part of this three-part review of Books v. Cigarettes will focus on the physical aspects of the book—how it feels, its binding, its cover.  The second part of the review will be a discussion of the content of the essays within and the third part of the review will center on my own experiment and findings similar to the titular essay of Books v. Cigarettes. We’ll then use that as a starting point to examine the publishing industry, the rise of e-books and e-book piracy, and the applicability of 20th-century essays to 21st-century conundrums. 


1. Author and title

During his career, George Orwell was primarily known as a journalist and essayist, although today most readers are farmiliar with his two seminal novels Animal Farm and 1984.  The most commonly read and anthologized of his essays is “Shooting an Elephant,” but beyond this he was also, like Suze Rotolo, a defender and champion for books and the written word.  He supported himself throughout his life by reviewing fiction for British newspapers.  As an critically judged Important Writer with significant name recognition, it’s possible to decide to read this book simply because George Orwell wrote it, knowing nothing else about it.  That’s why I read it.

It’s not the whole reason I read it—the unbelievably sexy title.  The title is from one of Orwell’s seven essays included in the book and “Books v. Cigarettes” may be the shortest essay in the collection, but it certainly has the best title, and while I read Books v. Cigarettes in public, people felt compelled to comment on the title and the author.   The other essays in  Books v. Cigarettes include “Bookshop Memories,” a collection of thoughts about working at a used bookstore, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” which are Orwell’s thoughts on the craft of reviewing and “Such, Such Were the Joys,” a childhood memoir of prep school.

2. Cover

books v. cigarettes cover

The cover for Books v. Cigarettes is newly designed as of 2008 (and this collection of essays has never exactly all appeared together.)  Its design harks back to old Penguin paperbacks with a simple geometric design that nonetheless looks attractive among other books.  The physical books is a little larger than a mass-market paperback and considerably more slender. The text and choice locations and designs on the cover are slightly embossed, giving the cover a look that far exceeds its £4.99.  I personally found this book among the collection of one of my close friends, and the cover not just effectively enticed me to read it, but also convinced me that this was a much older volume.  The cover is not slick or glossy and has an anachronistic “price” on the upper right corner.


3. Textblock and typography

The entirety of Books v. Cigarettes is very readable and it’s clear that some thought was put into the typefaces used for maximum readability.  Roland Phototypesetting in Suffolk set the book, and they should be commended for their work.  The front cover uses a Helvetica/Ariel sans-serif which not only looks modern but also 50s-futuristic.  The bold sans-serif also is the typeface of choice for modern art in general, and helps to add to the aesthetic of the collection.  The body of text is set in a simple serif typeface which is eminently readable yet stylistic, because it has elements like dropping 9s. 

4. Book feel

Since the book is essentially slightly taller and wider than a mass-market paperback and slender as well, it becomes an excellent book to throw into a purse or pocket for quick essay reading on the bus or subway.  The attractive cover and provocative title will attract whatever bookish sex you’re attracted to and you’ll end up with a better understanding of books and censorship.   But that’s next time—where we’ll discuss some of the concepts within these essays.