In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay called “Books v. Cigarettes,” in which he evaluated the cost of his two main vices.
Keeping up his book habit cost approximately £25 a year, a figure Orwell arrived at by tallying books then in his possession (including new books, used ones and library subscriptions) and averaging over 15 years (his estimated time spent acquiring these books). Adjusted for inflation and based on average earnings in 2007, £25 translates to roughly £2,386.89, or $4,369.67. It sounds like a lot, at least until you consider his other expenditures.
Orwell estimated that he spent £40 a year on cigarettes, which, adjusted in the same terms as above, comes out to about £3,819.03 today, or $6,991.49.
(The figures for “today’s” numbers may seem high, but let’s take into account higher prices in the UK and some other conversion criteria that the math-minded founders of MeasuringWorth.com — which I used for calculating the exchange and inflation — can explain much better than I can.)
Orwell, considering himself on par with the average British person, rightfully bemoans in his essay that he and his compatriots spend more on tobacco and booze than books, “which includes novels, poetry, text books, works of reference, sociological treatises and much else.” With so much to choose from, why did cigarettes and pints at the pub take up more of the typical person’s budget in 1946? What are we, troglodytes?, Orwell seems to ask in the essay, which is included in the recent collection of his newspaper columns, “Orwell in Tribune: ‘As I Please’ and Other Writings 1943-7.”
Said Orwell on book consumption: “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.”
Maybe the average American today isn’t caught up in “going to the dogs,” though it’s safe to say that frequenting the pub translates across time and geography. But book consumption of any kind has become startlingly low on this side of the pond, so much so that Orwell’s ghost would be lucky to catch an American reading his 148-page “Animal Farm.”
According to an Associated Press/Ipsos poll from August of last year, one in four American adults read no books at all in 2007. The average person claimed to have read four.
What are we, troglodytes?
Granted, the survey concerned “adults” in general. I’d like to think the average university student, by virtue of being a university student, reads more than four books a year.
But on second thought, how much further does the average college kid branch out from his or her required course reading list? If you add up enough blog posts, can you count them as one book? (There are blogs that have spawned book deals, after all.) Orwell didn’t have OnDemand and RSS feeds competing for his leisure time.
A fair amount of University students smoke, and almost all University students drink or “party” to some degree. How much money do you think you spend a year boozing or going out, compared to buying books — not counting those required for class? In this case, I only wish the Ann Arbor business bureau kept a tally of revenues from beer, wine and liquor sales as well as funnels, Solo cups, Hawaiian Punch and other products that contribute to the activity of getting drunk.
What would happen if you didn’t get that extra pitcher at Dominick’s ($22.00 for sangria) this week or skipped a pack of cigarettes (around $6 for a pack at Maison Edwards tobacconist in Nickels Arcade)? You could buy a paperback from the Book Guy, Wystan Stevens, on State Street; his used books, sold out of his van, are all $5 each.
Erasmus reportedly said, “If I have a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” Face it, the guy was probably exaggerating. But there’s something noble in the idea of thinking like him about the love of reading, and of knowledge. Try it for a week.
Perhaps it’s too soon to give up the bevvy (Dominick’s closes after Columbus Day), but there’s another expense that’s been eating into wallets more than usual — gasoline. At more than $4 a gallon, it’s a good idea to drive less if you can. Everyone wins: Walking or riding a bicycle instead will boost cardiovascular health and lessen humankind’s death campaign against the environment. A recent study, according to Harper’s magazine, even reported that 1,000 fewer people per month are dying in car accidents because of fewer cars on the road due to increased gas prices. Get a bike or walk; spend some of that former gas money on books, which you can read between class now that you’re not spending extra time locating street parking close to the B-school.
Of course, there’s always the library — and if you go to the University libraries, considered some of nation’s best, everything is free. And I’m sure you can get all kinds of editions of “Animal Farm.”