Books vs. Cigarettes is an essay by George Orwell first published in the Tribune on 8th February 1946. The subject is on the price of books. It begins,
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 idea of calculating how much has been spent on books for a lover of reading is quite alarming, and I can't even contemplate how much I've spent! But the point is: is reading an expensive hobby?
Orwell works is out: he counts up how many books he owns and discounts those given as a present, those borrowed, and works out that, in total, he owns around 900 books accumulated over some 15 years. He calculates that he has spent approximately £165 15s, that's £11 1s a year. Throw in periodicals, papers, and whatnot that rises to £19 1s a year, then library subscriptions and he's looking at about £25 a year. Orwell does not mention his annual income, however I've looked up the average income for 1946 and it's about £380.99.
But what of other things? What of cigarettes?
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.Include alcohol and the price doubles: £40 a year.
Then there is the question of value: Orwell attempts to quantify enjoyment:
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.And that is assuming the book is paid for: borrowed books from the library, as he observes, costs next to nothing. He concludes,
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.
It's an interesting one, this. What of today? Well, for a new book the average price is apparently £7.48 (or at least it was in 2015). For a packet of cigarettes - the Chancellor Phillip Hammond's Spring Budget increased the price of a pack of twenty cigarettes to £8.81. A new book a week would therefore cost £388.96 a year, and a twenty a day smoker will pay £3,206.84 a year, almost ten times the price of a new book a week. The average income is £27,271.
Books, then, are still a cheaper form of entertainment, cheaper than, say smoking or going out drinking, though it all depends upon what your income actually is. But of course, it's only really worth it, as Orwell notes, if you enjoy reading in the first place!
And that was my 38th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: Hérodias by Gustave Flaubert.