Books vs Cigarettes by George Orwell – Summary and Analysis

George Orwell wrote his ‘Books versus Cigarettes‘ in 1946, an year later than his Animal Farm. This piece was published in The Tribune on February 8th in the same year. Orwell became the literary editor of The Tribune in 1943. He wrote several essays on problems affecting the British society. This one is about reading books versus smoking cigarettes. Smoking is addictive and costly. On the other hand, reading costs less and can be profitable in many ways. Orwell’s work is interesting and engaging. He presents a cost analysis of reading books over a lifetime and its advantages. Then he compares it with the costs of smoking and which benefits us more. Both are habits and while one makes you wise and noble, the other is an addiction that burns millions every year. Orwell also talks of poverty in his essay and how it is related to smoking. The work is full of creative humour and sarcasm. Orwell presents his own reading expenses; a rough estimate as close as possible. Then he compares reading expenses with smoking to give readers an estimate of the value they earn from reading or smoking in their life. Orwell recommends reading over smoking. Reading will make you a better person and give you the wealth of your life. Smoking and other recreations do not offer the same potential returns.

One evening around 1944, Orwell was with an editor friend. They were fire-watching with some factory workers. His friend asked them how they liked his newspaper. Most liked it, but the literary section did not interest them as it dealt with costly books. They would not spend twelve and six pence on buying a book. Orwell’s friend quipped that these were the men who spent several pounds to go to Blackpool (a town in England). It was a common idea that reading is a luxury for only rich people can afford it. Orwell decides to examine this idea. He goes into great depth and detail to prove it an affordable exercise. Even if less exciting, according to him, reading is a better hobby. It is difficult to estimate how much reading books costs per hour but Orwell presents an estimate of his own inventory of books and its total cost. Including other related expenses, Orwell presents an estimate of how much reading cost him over the last fifteen years. The essay will make you think. It is filled with humour but Orwell’s analysis is also thought provocative. He takes a dig at how much people miss if they cannot spend on books. In very simple and clear words and without any complex calculations or mathematical analysis, his work proves reading helps you use your time productively.

Orwell’s penetrating wit is again visible in this essay. The author quantifies all the tangible and intangible value you gain from reading. There are some serious readers for whom reading is a passion and for others a hobby. Orwell was a passionate reader and writer. Another important work in which Orwell has highlighted the value of reading and writing is ‘Why I Write?’ Authors are motivated to write for many reasons and there are several that motivate people to read. Orwell’s motivation behind writing the essay is to dispel the confusion that reading is an expensive hobby. Most people believe that spending on books leaves people poorer. The author reviews the collection of books in his flat. He had an equal number stored at another place. He had 442 books in his flat and more than half of them were bought second hand. Several were borrowed from others and many were gifts or review copies. The author considers their full price including his own, borrowed and the ones he did not return. For the review or complimentary copies, Orwell considers only half of their price since he would have bought them second hand or not bought at all. He guesses the prices of some of the books. However, Orwell is confident that his guess is very close to their market price. Including the ones he had stored away, there were 900 of them worth £165 and 15 shillings. This was his collection of 15 years at the time he wrote the essay. Some were from his childhood but most dated no longer than 15 years back.

Orwell has kept things straightforward and uses only basic mathematics to prove reading is not as expensive as it sounds. His small library has 900 books and is worth less than 200 pounds. His total collection of 15 years cost him £11 1s an year. This was an estimate based on the price of books. Orwell adds the other expenses to give the readers a more clear estimate of total expenses associated with reading. His full reading expenses also included his spending on newspapers and periodicals which amounted to around £8. However, it includes two daily newspapers, one evening newspaper, one weekly review and one or two monthly magazines. Well, most people find it difficult to read one newspaper a day. Including these expenses and some other expenses like library subscriptions brought the figure to £25 an year. This would have sounded a large sum but when compared to other expenses people incurred knowingly and unknowingly, it was not much. £25 an year converted to 9s 9d a week and then it could buy someone 83 cigarettes. Cigarette prices had grown higher in the post war period. Before the war, people could buy 200 cigarettes for the same money. He calculates his expenditure on alcohol and cigarettes which was around £40. The national average spending on alcohol and cigarettes is also around the same. It proves Orwell’s point that the cost of reading books even if you include several magazines and periodicals each month does not amount to higher than the combined cost of cigarettes and alcohol.

Orwell proves in the last three paragraphs that returns on buying and reading books are better than cigarette and alcohol. It is difficult to have an accurate estimate of how much you gain from buying a book and sometimes the cost to income ratio can be higher than your expectations. It can be high in the sense that a dictionary you spent only six pence upon is useful for no less than 20 years and you can consult it whenever you like. If you are used to buying books second hand, then the gains are even larger. Orwell also highlights other advantages of reading. Its influence is more long lasting than alcohol or cigarette. Many of the books we read become a part of our brain’s machinery, influence our thoughts and give us a sense of direction. Several of Orwell’s essays have proved to be eye openers for their readers. There are other books, Orwell notes that we take a dip in, read a few first chapters and then place them aside. There are other books which we read and remember for a week and then forget them. The effect can vary depending upon one’s choice and reading habits. The costs of each are mostly around the same. For those who read for recreation, its costs are same as watching cinema. If you like buying books first hand, you can keep them after reading and sell at one third their original price. If you buy them second hand or borrow from a library, your hourly reading expenses would be even lower.

In his argumentative essay, Orwell provides sufficient points to prove that reading is one of the cheapest forms of recreation after radio. He provides an estimate of how much the public in England was spending on books in his time. No sources cite actual figures but Orwell thinks these figures exist. As per his rough estimate of an average English person’s spending on books which he believed numbered three an year was £1. However, Orwell concludes that it is not something to feel proud of. In a nation where people spend more on cigarettes than an average Indian farmer spends on his livelihood and which is nearly hundred percent literate, this is something of an embarrassment and a leading cause that a significant part of the population lived in poverty. In Orwell’s words, “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“. These are the last lines from his essay. Orwell concludes the piece with an emphasis on his point that reading books is not as taxing as an average person thinks. If people have grown disengaged then it is because they do not find as much excitement in reading as they do in low standard recreation and not because books are expensive. The truth is that with changing time people’s lifestyles have changed and reading has become an exercise for the engineers, scholars and artists. However, while reading leaves us richer in more ways than we know, spending on other recreations like pub, cinema or the more modern forms of recreation in our age, leaves us poorer. Getting people interested in reading again is difficult as distractions have grown in number and people find it cheaper to waste their time on more thrilling forms of recreation. More and more exciting sources of recreation have emerged with time and despite being less expensive, reading has proved less exciting and continues to lose popularity. His words sound even true in this era since people are investing more time in social media, games, videos, movies and every other recreation even if reading is now more affordable and more books are accessible to people around the globe.

Abhijeet Pratap

I am Abhijeet Pratap, editor of notesmatic. I am an MBA with marketing (major). Apart from writing on various topics in business management, marketing and English literature, I like to read and write about technology.