Books vs. Cigarettes by George Orwell.

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.
He continues,
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.


  1. i haven't smoked for 30 years, but when i did, i bet i spent more on it than i did on books; of course mostly i inhabited Goodwills and the like, as well as libraries... but i had a very intense job and went through 4 packs a day... but i bet Orwell's main premise remains true today, with cigarettes running about $5/pack and books obtainable at some sales for as little as$.25(paperbacks)...

    1. I used to smoke too, about 20 a day. At uni we said we'd all stop when the prices went to over £5 (2005 ish), but they were about £6.50 for the cheap ones when I stopped (about 2011 I think, not sure). Was shocked to see they're now up to £8.81. Mind, in 2010 at Kings Cross I saw Marlboro were already over £10. But that's London. But yes, books are most certainly cheaper and better value, though the way things are over here they still may be unaffordable for a great many despite such low prices.

  2. I like this essay! It gives one a good reason to go out and buy a book .... or two .....! :)

    1. Indeed! I'm off to the charity shops today intending to buy one (I'd actually really like a Stephen King - Salem's Lot if I can find it) :)

  3. My library card and I are feeling unjustifiably smug right about now. :D But really, what a fascinating analysis of costs over time! And I think of books as pretty expensive these days, but clearly they're not the most expensive thing out there. I too am amazed at the price of cigarettes these days (whenever I hear about it; I couldn't tell you what it actually is, but it involves a whole lot of taxation).

    1. I think new shop-bought books are pretty expensive and have been for a while. I remember buying Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading for £13 in Waterstones in... 2003, 2004. That was rather excessive. But Amazon are usually good, as are charity shops etc. I rarely buy new books now, I'd say about 85% of my books are second hand and most are rather tatty :)

    2. Those are the best kind; they have personality! We are mostly used-book people too.


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