Books v. Cigarettes: the experiment

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


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