(…) Twenty-five pounds a year sounds quite a lot until you begin to measure it against other kinds of expenditure. It is nearly 9s. 9d. a week, and at present 9s. 9d. is the equivalent of about 83 cigarettes (Players): even before the war it would have bought you less than 200 cigarettes. With prices as they now are, I am spending far more on tobacco than I do on books. I smoke six ounces a week, at half a crown an ounce, making nearly £40 a year (…)
It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price if books and the value one gets out if them. “Books” includes novels, poetry, textbooks, works of reference, sociological treatises and much else, and the length and price do not correspond to one another, especially if one habitually buys books second-hand. You may spend ten shillings on a poem of 500 lines, and you may spend sixpence on a dictionary which you consult at odd moments over a period of twenty years. There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads trough, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later: and the cost in terms of money, may be the same in each case. But if one regards reading simply as a recreation, like going to the pictures, then it is possible to make a rough estimate of what it costs. If you read nothing but novels and ‘light’ literature, and bought every book that you read, you would be spending-allowing eight shillings as the price of a book, and four hours as the time spent in reading it-two shillings an hour. This is about what it costs to sit in one of the more expensive seats in the cinema. If you concentrated on more serious books, and still bought everything that you read, your expenses would be about the same. The books would cost more but they would take longer to read. In either case you would still possess the books after you have read them, and they would be saleable at about a third of their purchase price. If you bought only second-hand books, you reading expenses would, of course, be much less: perhaps sixpence an hour would be a fair estimate. And on the other hand if you don’t buy books, but merely borrow them from the public library, it costs you next door to nothing.
I have said enough to show that reading is one of the cheaper recreations: after listening to the radio probably the cheapest. Meanwhile, what is the actual amount that the British public spends on books? I cannot discover any figures, though no doubt they exist. But I do know that before the war this country was publishing annually about 15,000 books, which included reprints and school books. If as many as 10,000 copies of each book were sold-and even allowing for the school books, this is probably a high estimate-the average person was only buying, directly or indirectly, about three books a year. These three books taken together might cost £1, or probably less.
These figures are guesswork, and I should interested if someone would correct them for me. But if my estimate is anywhere near right, it is not a proud record for a country which is nearly 100 per cent literate and where the ordinary spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his own 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 books, wether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.
George Orwell, “Books v. Cigarettes”