Review: Books v. Cigarettes

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. 

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