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George Orwell > Books vs. Cigarettes > Essay

Books vs. Cigarettes

Essay


A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a newspaper editor, was
firewatching with some factory workers. They fell to talking about his
newspaper, which most of them read and approved of, but when he asked
them what they thought of the literary section, the answer he got was:
"You don't suppose we read that stuff, do you? 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." These, he said, were men who thought
nothing of spending several pounds on a day trip to Blackpool.

This idea that the buying, or even the reading, of books is an expensive
hobby and beyond the reach of the average person is so widespread that
it deserves some detailed examination. Exactly what reading costs,
reckoned in terms of pence per hour, is difficult to estimate, but I have
made a start by inventorying my own books and adding up their total price.
After allowing for various other expenses, I can make a fairly good guess
at my expenditure over the last fifteen years.

The books that I have counted and priced are the ones I have here,
in my flat. I have about an equal number stored in another place, so that
I shall double the final figure in order to arrive at the complete amount.
I have not counted oddments such as proof copies, defaced volumes, cheap
paper-covered editions, pamphlets, or magazines, unless bound up into
book form. Nor have I counted the kind of junky books-old school
text-books and so forth--that accumulate in the bottoms of cupboards.
I have counted only those books which I have acquired voluntarily,
or else would have acquired voluntarily, and which I intend to keep.
In this category I find that I have 442 books, acquired in the
following ways:


Bought (mostly second-hand)                251
Given to me or bought with book tokens     33
Review copies and complimentary copies     143
Borrowed and not returned                 10
Temporarily on loan                         5
Total                                 442


Now as to the method of pricing. Those books that I have bought I have
listed at their full price, as closely as I can determine it.
I have also listed at their full price the books that have been given
to me, and those that I have temporarily borrowed, or borrowed and kept.
This is because book-giving, book-borrowing and bookstealing more or
less even out. I possess books that do not strictly speaking belong
to me, but many other people also have books of mine: so that the books
I have not paid for can be taken as balancing others which I have paid
for but no longer possess. On the other hand I have listed the review and
complimentary copies at half-price. That is about what I would have paid
for them second-hand, and they are mostly books that I would only have
bought second-hand, if at all. For the prices I have sometimes had to
rely on guesswork, but my figures will not be far out. The costs were
as follows:


                             s. d.
Bought                     36    9    0
Gifts                     10 10    0
Review copies, etc         25 11    9
Borrowed and not returned    4 16    9
On loan                     3 10    0
Shelves                     2    0    0
Total                    82 17    6


Adding the other batch of books that I have elsewhere, it seems that I
possess altogether nearly 900 books, at a cost of 165 15s. This is the
accumulation of about fifteen years--actually more, since some of these
books date from my childhood: but call it fifteen years. This works out
at 11 Is. a year, but there are other charges that must be added in
order to estimate my full reading expenses. The biggest will be for
newspapers and periodicals, and for this I think 8 a year would be
a reasonable figure. Eight pounds a year covers the cost of two daily
papers, one evening paper, two Sunday papers, one weekly review and
one or two monthly magazines. This brings the figure up to 19 1s, but
to arrive at the grand total one has to make a guess. Obviously one often
spends money on books without afterwards having anything to show for it.
There are library subscriptions, and there are also the books, chiefly
Penguins and other cheap editions, which one buys and then loses or
throws away. However, on the basis of my other figures, it looks as
though 6 a year would be quite enough to add for expenditure of this
kind. So my total reading expenses over the past fifteen years have been
in the neighbourhood of 25 a year.

Twenty-five pounds a year sounds quite a lot until you begin to measure
it against other kinds of expenditure. It is nearly 9s 9d a week, and
at present 9s 9d is the equivalent of about 83 cigarettes (Players):
even before the war it would have bought you less than 200 cigarettes.
With prices as they now are, I am spending far more on tobacco than I do
on books. I smoke six ounces a week, at half-a-crown an ounce, making
nearly 40 a year. Even before the war when the same tobacco cost 8d an
ounce, I was spending over 10 a year on it: and if I also averaged a
pint of beer a day, at sixpence, these two items together will have cost
me close on 20 a year. This was probably not much above the national
average. In 1938 the people of this country spent nearly 10 per head per
annum on alcohol and tobacco: however, 20 per cent of the population were
children under fifteen and another 40 per cent were women, so that the
average smoker and drinker must have been spending much more than
10. In 1944, the annual expenditure per head on these items was no less
than 23. Allow for the women and children as before, and 40 is a
reasonable individual figure. Forty pounds a year would just about pay
for a packet of Woodbines every day and half a pint of mild six days
a week--not a magnificent allowance. Of course, all prices are now
inflated, including the price of books: still, it looks as though the
cost of reading, even if you buy books instead of borrowing them and
take in a fairly large number of periodicals, does not amount to more
than the combined cost of smoking and drinking.

It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books
and the value one gets out of them. "Books" includes novels, poetry, text
books, works of reference, sociological treatises and much else, and
length and price do not correspond to one another, especially if one
habitually buys books second-hand. You may spend ten shillings on a
poem of 500 lines, and you may spend sixpence on a dictionary which
you consult at odd moments over a period of twenty years. There are
books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of
the furniture of one's mind 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: and the cost, in terms
of money, may be the same in each case. But if one regards reading
simply as a recreation, like going to the pictures, then it is possible
to make a rough estimate of what it costs. If you read nothing but novels
and "light" literature, and bought every book that you read, you would
be spending-allowing eight shillings as the price of a book, and four
hours as the time spent in reading it-two shillings an hour. This is
about what it costs to sit in one of the more expensive seats in the
cinema. If you concentrated on more serious books, and still bought
everything that you read, your expenses would be about the same.
The books would cost more but they would take longer to read. In either
case you would still possess the books after you had read them, and
they would be saleable at about a third of their purchase price. If
you bought only second-hand books, your reading expenses would, of
course, be much less: perhaps sixpence an hour would be a fair estimate.
And on the other hand if you don't buy books, but merely borrow them
from the lending library, reading costs you round about a halfpenny an
hour: if you borrow them from the public library, it costs you next door
to nothing.

I have said enough to show that reading is one of the cheaper recreations:
after listening to the radio probably THE cheapest. Meanwhile, what is
the actual amount that the British public spends on books? I cannot
discover any figures, though no doubt they exist. But I do know that
before the war this country was publishing annually about 15,000 books,
which included reprints and school books. If as many as 10,000 copies
of each book were sold--and even allowing for the school books, this
is probably a high estimate-the average person was only buying, directly
or indirectly, about three books a year. These three books taken together
might cost 1, or probably less.

These figures are guesswork, and I should be interested if someone
would correct them for me. But if my estimate is anywhere near right,
it is not a proud record for a country which is nearly 100 per cent
literate and where the ordinary man spends more on cigarettes than an
Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood. And if our book consumption
remains as low as it has been, at least 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.















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