Books v. cigarettes

Writing for the now defunct Tribune magazine in February 1946 George Orwell conducted a simple study. The aim was to investigate the idea that ‘the buying, or even reading, of books is an expensive hobby and beyond the reach of the average person…’. At the time, he informs the modern reader, the consumption of books was considered a past time for the moneyed and not a working class activity. Readers of any of Orwell’s biographical essays or books will observe the continued presence of and his reliance upon tobacco, to the extent that in ‘Clink‘ he notes that ‘as always happens when it is a choice between tobacco and food, I bought tobacco with my twopence‘. To surmise that Orwell was not the only inhabitant of 1940s Britain with such a relationship to tobacco is not unfair. This addiction, in the literal sense, that people of all classes has to tobacco is what makes Orwell’s original study so interesting, as it compares literature with one of every day life’s perceived necessities. The result, that  his book habit was less expensive than his smoking, is what you might expect . But would the same still be true today?

I, unlike Orwell, do not have a record of all the books I have bought in the last twelve months. Suffice to say there have been a lot and as I sit at my desk I am an enclosed by books. Perhaps I can flatter myself and presume my reading habits are above average. Instead of trying to remember my own consumption I will use guesswork, some of it educated, to calculate a rough average of  how many books a person might buy in a year.

A very cautious estimate, assuming a relatively slow rate of reading and limited time, is that an adult reads at least one book a month. Add to this another couple of airport books, or ‘mass market paperbacks’ in publishing jargon, to be read on holiday and  the total of fourteen books is arrived at. This may seem like a conservative number but  consider that as many as a quarter of British adults don’t read at all and perhaps this is not so depressing a figure . Anecdotally however the number appears to be higher, averaging around thirty books. When one considers the number of volumes read by commuters alone, any traveler to London will have observed the art of turning pages while remaining upright on the underground during rush hour, this is more realistic a figure.

Working out the cost of a book is a challenge in itself. Prices vary depending on the nature of the volume. Hardback or softback, fiction or non-fiction, trade or mass market, everything is for sale. One can expect to pay in the region of £18.19 for a hardback work of fiction, £10.71 for  paperback fiction (slightly more for non-fiction) and £5.52 if your chosen reading falls within the mass market envelope.

Clearly the exact cost of a habit depends therefore on what the reader buys. It would be possible to buy nothing but hardcovers and end up spending £545.70  in a year. It is equally possible that one could spend as little as £165.60 if shopping at the cheaper end of the scale. These figures have been arrived at by highly subjective, back of the napkin style maths and provide only a simple guideline to how much a person might spend on books every year.

Smoking is easier to track, as a public health problem there have been near countless studies on the prevalence of tobacco use in Britain. Although men generally smoke slightly more cigarettes a day than women the numbers are close and the British average stands at thirteen a day (four thousand seven hundred and forty five a year). What is the monetary cost of this? Tesco’s most expensive brand is priced at 40p per cigarette, its cheapest at 32p, As Britain’s biggest supermarket one can assume that Tesco is at least partially representative of cigarette prices across the country and their prices will do as an average.

Some quick maths asserts that a pre-rolled cigarette habit will cost an average of £1,513.40, with smokers of finer taste paying £1,898 for consumption of tobacco. Even allowing for the inevitable error in these numbers there is a clear difference between the cost of books verses cigarettes.

My calculations are inferior to Orwell’s original maths. Done in less of a hurry and using the hard facts of his own reading and smoking habits Orwell was certainly more accurate, although I must insist I was presented with a slightly harder task, the price of books and cigarettes is far more varied than in 1947. There is also the issue of borrowing books, from libraries or friends, establishments such as those on the Charing Cross road where second hand paperbacks are priced at £4 and the modern peculiarity of eBooks, something Orwell never had to contend with. As Orwell himself admitted the figures arrived at in this peculiar calculation are guesswork.

Yet our conclusions are the same. In purely monetary terms cigarettes cost far more than books. The myth that reading is for those who can afford to buy books does not exist because books themselves cost too much money. If alcohol consumption was factored in with tobacco then the monetary divide between our two most common pastimes and literature would be even greater. Why is this? Why, when a good book can give so much do we lean towards habits that cost us far more? In answer I must return to where this began and quote Orwell in his original essay;

But if my estimate is anywhere near right, it is not a proud record for a country which is nearly 100% 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 the books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive. (Books v. Cigarettes, Tribune, 8 February, 1946).


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