2012. augusztus 24., péntek

Books vs. Cigarettes - George Orwell's Essay

Books vs. Cigarettes


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 

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