Books v. Cigarettes: Reading in Today’s Culture of Free

I recently picked up a copy of Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell in the delightfully crooked English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Company on the Parisian left bank. Books v. Cigarettes is a collection of essays, focused on themes of writing and reading. In the first essay, taking the same title as the collection, Orwell takes issue with the idea that reading is an expensive hobby. He calculates his expenditure on books and works out the potential cost of reading as a hobby. He argues that it is not the cost of reading that makes people say:

You don’t suppose we read that stuff, do you? Why, half the time you’re talking about books that cost twelve and sixpence! Chaps like us couldn’t spend twelve and sixpence on a book.

Rather, it is a lack of inclination. They would rather smoke and socialise; as he argues in the conclusion of his essay:

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 that going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.

That was 1946. The book was competing for attention and expenses with the cinema, smoking, drinking, and the radio. Orwell’s sharp little essay got me thinking about why the book has survived since then. Today, in 2015, the humble book has to compete with an increasing expectation for “free” entertainment. Not only have films and TV shows been pirated, illegally downloaded and streamed by an entire generation of youngsters for a number of years, but increasingly people of all ages turn to sites like YouTube which provide unlimited hours of video and music completely free without the issue of pirating: uploaded by music stars or celebrity vloggers who make their money through YouTube commission or from selling tour tickets and merchandise. (A new book by Stephen Witt addresses this particular history of the internet: How Music Got Free: What Happens When An Entire Generation Commits the Same Crime?).

Orwell’s argument still rings true: reading is a relatively cheap hobby compared to smoking, or drinking, or going to the cinema, particularly on a long-term basis. But how do books compete for attention in 2015, when we expect everything for free; and in an era where instant gratification has increased the popularity of the small screen 20-minute episode over lengthy 3-hour films, and 2.5-minute songs over hour-long albums? How can expensive, lengthy books compete with that?

Books are potentially the last bastions of expensive entertainment, and yet as humans we are materialistic creatures. We like to see the objects we pay for, we like to have things to own (and to take photos of). This is why vinyl is making a comeback: even though we can listen to the same music for free online, there is something immensely satisfying about holding the music in your hands; and unlike the practical but aesthetically displeasing CD, records span over a century of music. The large size of the album and the nostalgia for vinyl has encouraged the rise of vinyl collectors and the sale of record players – in 2014, record sales were reportedly up 50% from the previous year, whilst online music services such as Spotify and Rdio are obliterating the CD.

So why do we still read and buy books? (And apparently we still do: an article in The Atlantic suggested book sales are on the rise, despite bookshops themselves being in turmoil.) There is something about leafing through a paper copy and being absorbed in the words and the world of the author that can’t be truly replicated online or in another form of entertainment. And although kindles and other e-readers offer cheaper or sometimes free version of books, as well as the ability to carry thousands of books in a small device, the feel of a book and the pleasure of being to hold it in our hands can’t be imitated.

But it is not just about the feel of a page and being able to leaf through books or select them off the shelf. Increasingly we are paralysed in our choices by having practically every kind of music or book that has ever been recorded in any format directly at our fingertips. Choosing a paper copy in a small bookshop, or choosing vinyl over the Spotify phenomenon, gives us a smaller range of choice. As studies have shown (made famous by the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz) when given a smaller range of options to choose from, we are happier with our choices. Reading may be a solitary, expensive hobby, but it doesn’t seem about to die off just yet.

Here’s to the future of the book: may it continue to surprise us and outlive our expectations!

2 thoughts on “Books v. Cigarettes: Reading in Today’s Culture of Free

  1. This sounds awesome! I’ll have to pick it up. Never heard of it before, so thanks for sharing! If you’re ever interested in some other awesome book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!

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