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.