Book Review: “Books v. Cigarettes” (2008) by George Orwell

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Books v. Cigarettes is the second volume of essays written by George Orwell in Penguin’s Great Ideas series that I’ve read – the first one being Some Thoughts On the Common Toad (review here). Between the two, Books v. Cigarettes is easily the superior selection. As you would expect of Orwell, there is some talk of politics and totalitarianism, but he also writes about working at a bookstore and his time as a young boy at St Cyprian’s school for boys. …That said, the essay about his school days still ends up being about class differences, snobbery, and indoctrination, because of course it does. Orwell has a lot of feelings about social mobility, you guys.

Funnily enough, the least interesting piece in this collection is the titular essay. Orwell describes how some factory workers had told a friend of his that they didn’t read any books because they couldn’t afford to buy any. He then argues that reading isn’t an expensive hobby at all, especially compared to some of the other pursuits these workers spend their money on without a second thought. To prove his point, he calculates how much he spends on books and cigarettes in a year, concluding that tabacco is much more expensive than literature. It’s a fun look into what we prioritise and what things are really worth compared to their monetary value, but compared to some of the other works in this collection, it is relatively inconsequential fluff – but still well-written food for thought, because this is still George Orwell we’re talking about.

The same can be said about his writings on working in a bookshop and as a book reviewer – fun stuff with some excellent points, but the weight of this volume lies in the latter half of the collection. The first three essays are an accessible warmup; in the other four pieces, Orwell brings out the big guns.

My favourite essay is the longer, autobiographical “Such, Such Were the Joys.” This is the one that will stick with me and that I’ve been mulling over ever since I finished reading it. It starts out as a relatively straightforward recollection of his school days – being chastised for wetting the bed, having to memorise dates and facts instead of acquiring real knowledge and so on. However, as Orwell digs deeper and deeper into his childhood memories, it turns into a fascinating exploration of shame, frustration, and feelings of inferiority. Now that he is a grown man, Orwell suddenly understands where many of his feelings of fear and embarrassment as a child actually came from, and even though he is no longer angry at the people involved, he still expresses outrage at the system and the way he and others like him were treated. Throw in some thoughts on the snobbery of pre-war England and child psychology, and you’ve got an incredible piece of writing. Very highly recommended!

(If you don’t feel like tracking down Books v. Cigarettes, you can find “Such, Such Were the Joys” here.)


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