The Reasons We Don’t Read

by Matt Sitman


It rarely comes down to finances, as Kaya Genç realized when she revisited George Orwell’s essay, “Books v. Cigarettes,” written after he had heard that factory workers found books too expensive:

[Orwell] calculated his expenditure on books over a period of 15 years. He took note of them (“bought,” “given to me or bought with book tokens,” “review copies and complimentary copies,” “borrowed and not returned,” “temporarily on loan”) and learned that over this course of time he had purchased a total of 442 titles. Since he had roughly the same amount of books stored in another place he doubled the figure for a final calculation. “[I]t seems that I possess altogether nearly 900 books, at a cost of £165 15s,” he wrote.

To fully estimate his reading expenses he added to the sum the cost of newspapers and periodicals. Orwell typically read two daily papers, an evening paper, two Sunday papers, a weekly magazine, and “one or two” monthly magazines. He added these and the cost of his library subscriptions. In the end he concluded that his “total reading expenses over the past fifteen years have been in the neighbourhood of £25 a year.”

In contrast, he had spent £40 a year on cigarettes. His reading habit was cheaper than his smoking one. The workers had had little reason to complain about the cost of books, he decided. If they were not reading literature it was probably because they found books boring — not because they couldn’t afford them.

She updates Orwell’s self-inventory for the age of tablet reading and Starbucks:

My e-reading expenditures … cost me around $385 — less than my coffee expenditures for the same period, which were in the neighborhood of $1,800. My e-reading habit thus costs only a fifth of my drinking one (maybe a little more when I’m not working on a novel). For every dollar I spent on the likes of Tolstoy I spent four on coffee beans.

(Photo by Fabrizio Salvetti)