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  • Books v. Books*
  • Marc Flandreau

In 1946, cigarettes became the measure of everything. On the war-ravaged Continent, they enjoyed currency as a means of payment—a more stable store of value than even the dollar. In Britain, where they were expensive but not rationed, they found their way as unit of account in George Orwell's little essay "Books v. Cigarettes," which appeared in the Tribune and today is the lead essay in an eponymous collection published by Penguin.1

Though many readers may be familiar with it, probably not all are, for it is hardly Orwell's most famous or highly esteemed piece. For example, it is deemed "relatively inconsequential fluff" by "The Narratologist," who gives the Penguin essay collection four stars out of five and rates "Books v. Cigarettes" the "least interesting piece" in it.2

In substance, "Books v. Cigarettes" walks us through the sinuous details of calculating the value of Orwell's library: books bought, books borrowed, books not returned, books received for review, books from Orwell's childhood, and books lost, too. The narrator moves from there to the cost of individual books, from book cost to book value, and then from book value to the value of his nine-hundred-book library. Dividing the value of the library by the number of years it took him to build it, he derives an annual expenditure (at this stage, forget the children's books). Finally, he adds the other entries in his reading budget (daily newspapers and magazines) and comes up with an annual total of 25 pounds in reading expenditure.

"This sounds quite a lot," Orwell concludes, the equivalent of 9s 9d per week, but then, he hastens to add, 9s 9d will only buy you 83 "Players." At this point, the modern reader sees in a flash the famous photograph [End Page 259] of Orwell with a cigarette negligently drooping from his lips—so was that one a Player? Of course, as Orwell very well knows—and as he reminds us—cigarettes are no invariable standard of value. They were cheaper before the war. The same amount of money would have bought more cigarettes in 1939, though probably not more than 200. Still, that is less than two packs a day, and cigarettes go fast—those were the days, my friend.

Why the comparison, and why the title's trial format? There is an ostensible purpose behind this, and it bookends the essay (no pun intended). It is also what has detained commentaries I have come across. So, why not linger on it? A few years earlier, Orwell begins, a newspaper-editor friend of his was talking with some factory workers and asked them about the "literary section" of the newspaper. "You don't suppose we read that stuff do you?" is the answer he gets. "Why, half of the time you're talking about books that cost twelve and six pence [12s. 6d.]! Chaps like us couldn't spend twelve and six pence on a book." Thus opens the rumination that ends with the verdict in the case of Books v. Cigarettes (cigarettes lose).

In a further digression or robustness test (that's what they call it these days in the serious journals), Orwell then compares alternative forms of recreation—he sets up a horse race between the cinema, listening to the radio, going to the dogs (!!), going down the pub, and reading. They compete to fill up leisure time and again books pull ahead as one of the cheapest of all pastimes. Perhaps, Orwell concludes, it is the cheapest of them all, after listening to the radio. And bear in mind that you can resell a book for a third of its purchase price: don't tell me that books are expensive.

For readers of this journal, there are reasons why "Books v. Cigarettes" is worth pondering. But primary among them is not the essay's intuition, long before Kelvin Lancaster, long before Sherwin Rosen, that goods are but a collection of their own characteristics, which is what people seek when they purchase them—for example, an umbrella keeps you dry, a bit like a raincoat. Likewise, by focusing on...


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pp. 259-262
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