Books v. Cigarettes is one of many essays by the English writer George Orwell, in this short book.
The titular essay is an interesting look at why people don’t read, while the others range from Orwell’s time working in a bookshop to his childhood at a boarding school.
All of them present a fascinating insight into different aspects of society in the early 20th century. It may not sound like an exciting read, but Orwell has a way of turning topics which seem mundane into interesting essays.
The Books v. Cigarettes essay is a great look at one of the most common reasons people give for not reading and is one we should all consider. While Orwell’s take on his time in a Paris hospital with numerous poor people in squalid conditions is alarming.
This is one of the best George Orwell books despite being one of the least-known. He is one of, if not the, finest writers of the English language for a reason. His essays are easy to read and convey their points with maximum efficiency.
He’s not afraid to discuss difficult topics and his honesty and forthrightness on issues such as the conditions of the poor and the reality of privilege are ones we should continue to discuss today.
If you’re new to Orwell, this is a great book to start with. If you’ve already read some of Orwell’s books, this one is a great one to read and broaden your knowledge of his writing.
Books v Cigarettes summary
Takeaway 1 Books aren’t that expensive
The titular essay, Books v. Cigarettes delves into the issue of why some people don’t read. The idea for the essay was born when a friend of Orwell detailed his experience when he was firewatching during the Second World War.
His friend stated the factory workers he was watching with, had no interest in literature because books cost too much.
Despite the passage of time, the essay is still relevant today. Many people might be put off from reading because they believe books are too expensive. While some of them are, if you’re clever, you can get for relatively little.
However, Orwell approaches this idea from another angle. He considers the other things that he spends his money on such as beer and cigarettes.
He comes to the conclusion, that by his estimations, he spends much more on tobacco than he does on books. Therefore, it stands to reason that if Orwell can spend money on books so can everyone else.
If you want to make reading a habit, it might be worth considering what you’re spending your money on. Coffee in the morning may seem like a good idea, but if you’re buying one every day, it soon adds up.
Incidentally, these points make for great book club discussion questions about the merits of reading and whether it’s a habit all of us can do.
Reading is one of the most beneficial habits we can develop. It enriches us, transports us to different lands and teaches us about many things of which we are ignorant.
Instead of buying a coffee, or a sandwich, consider saving your money for books instead. You can buy books for under £10/$10 so there’s really no excuse not to read. That is unless you don’t want to of course!
Takeaway 2 Conditions in poverty are horrendous
One of the most harrowing essays in this book is How The Poor Die. In it, Orwell recounts his experience in a hospital in France.
The picture he paints is not a nice one. The beds were so close that he could reach out and touch the person to the side of him. Not an ideal scenario for stopping the spread of viruses.
During Orwell’s life, there were certain diseases that attacked poor people more than most. Tuberculosis and cholera are a few. This was because of the poor sanitary condition that they lived in.
When they became ill and went to the hospital, their standard of living did not improve. As Orwell states, the conditions in the hospital were terrible.
As grim as the account is, for people around the world, this will still be a reality. Despite all of the wealth in the world today, poverty has not been eradicated.
People are still dying of tuberculosis and cholera despite the improvements we have made. Orwell’s description of poverty and the horrors of death that he witnessed in the hospital are still playing out today.
It’s important to remember that we are blessed to live in countries where we have working sanitation and high standards of living. For many people, this is a dream. We are incredibly lucky, we shouldn’t forget that.
Takeaway 3 The elite have a hierarchy
The last essay in Books v. Cigarettes is Such, Such Were The Joys. It’s an autobiographical account of Orwell’s time at St. Cyprian’s, a boarding school in England.
In it, he recounts how the teachers belittled him and how he suffered from cruelty and snobbery from both pupils and teachers.
An interesting part of the essay is when Orwell describes education. Rather than being taught in-depth about subjects, the focus is on teaching pupils only what they need to pass the entrance exams for prestigious schools such as Eton and Harrow.
Oddly, this ties in with the experience of many at school today. I remember our teaching revolving around what would appear in the exams, rather than delving in-depth into topics and thinking about them critically.
Another interesting aspect of the essay that is explored is snobbery. I don’t know if this is common in other countries, but it is in England.
Orwell’s details how new arrivals to the school were quizzed by other pupils on their status. Questions such as how many butlers do you have, where do you go on holiday, and what car do your parent’s drive were common.
The fact that these questions were asked by children highlights how deep-rooted snobbery was in these settings. Orwell was constantly belittled because he came from a family which was perceived to be of lower-stock than other children at the school.
What the essay shows us is that judging people on their material wealth is pointless. Orwell was constantly told he would amount to nothing, and yet, today he is remembered as one of the most important writers in the English language.
Your worth is based on much more than what you own and how you dress, it’s based on your character.
We should judge people on the goodness of their character and their actions. Not arbitrary distinctions of wealth and privilege that mean little.
- “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.”
- “Out of this concourse of several hundred people, perhaps half of whom were directly connected with the writing trade, there was not a single one who could point out that freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.”
- “From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.”
- “When one sees highly educated men looking on indifferently at oppression and persecution, one wonders which to despise more, their cynicism or their shortsightedness.”
- “I had won two scholarships, but I was a failure, because success was measured not by what you did but by what you were.”
Books v Cigarettes review
My Books v Cigarettes summary has focused on a few of the essays that are included in this book. But, there are others that are worthy of reading too.
He was a frequent writer and some of his best work can be found in these essays.
What’s fascinating about these essays are the insights they reveal into the lives of many different people before and after the Second World War.
We see how ordinary British working-class men derided literature because they felt it was overpriced. We also see how the poor were treated in hospitals, often with a lack of dignity.
These works are important to read because they show us how far we have come since these days. Orwell was a staunch believer in social justice and his writings were influential for many believers in these causes.
While he would likely be delighted with the progress we have made today, he would also be scathing about certain aspects of our society today.
What these essays show us is that despite the leads we have made since the 1930s, we still have a long way to go!
Who should read this book?
Anyone who is interested in the best George Orwell books will enjoy Books v. Cigarettes, while people interested in the lives and times of Orwell’s ear will enjoy it too.
Those who are interested in social justice and want to learn what drove Orwell and influenced some of his more famous writings will also get a lot from this book.