Literary travel: “Books v. Cigarettes” by George Orwell

I appreciated for the first time the work of George Orwell when, in high school, my English literature teacher made us read Animal Farm. I loved that book, notwithstanding the fact that we had to read it over and over again for months, until I almost knew it by heart. And my inner history geek loved all the subtle references to the history of the XX century.

So when I found in the local Waterstones bookshop a cheap edition of a collection of Orwell’s essays, I had to get it.

“A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a newspaper editore, was fire-watching with some factory workers. They fell to talking about his newspaper, which most of them read and approved of, but when he asked them what they thought of the literary section, the answer he got was: ‘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.’ These, he said, were men who thought nothing of spending several pounds on a day trip to Blackpool.”

With these words George Orwell began its essay entitled “Books v. Cigarettes”, which gives the title to the all collection. He strongly tries to defend books and his passion to read against those who find them too expensive, literally trying to calculate how much money he spent on books through its life.

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 through, 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.”

Books are a fil rouge in the first part of the collection: Orwell also tells the experiences he had working in a second-hand bookshop for a period of time and describes the work of a literary columnist.

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 man spends more on cigarettes than an Indian peasant has for his whole livelihood.”

But then, after the telling of his experience in a French hospital during the war, half of the book is dedicated to the memoir Orwell wrote on his years at St. Cyprian’s college before the First World War as a young boy from a modest family on a scholarship.

By the social standards that prevailed about me, I was no good, and could not be any good. But all the different kinds of virtue seemed to be mysteriously interconnected and to belong to much the same people. It was not only money that mattered: there was also strength, beauty, charm, athleticism and something called ‘guts’ or ‘character’, which in reality meant the power to impose your will on others. I did not possess any of these qualities. At games for instance, I was hopeless. I was a fairly good swimmer and not altogether contemptible at cricket, but these had no prestige value, because boys attach importance to a  game if it requires strength and courage. What counted was football, at which I was a funk.”

The description of his childhood is surprisingly detailed, given that he wrote it about thirty years after the events took place and I happened to ask myself how much of the story was actually true. Anyway, Orwell opens to us a window not only on his life as a young boy before WWI and a young man after WWII, but on the all English society before and after the two world conflicts.

I really liked this book: although the story is not quite light, fun, and easy to read, the words are majestically used, and even the description of a French decadent hospital may appassionate the reader. The different settings of these essays, all published on different magazines between 1936 and 1952, make the reader travel back in time to the chaotic first half of the past century and experience the strict English culture and society which are long gone. And the small size of this books makes it easy to bring it in a backpack or a suitcase during an actual journey.

WHERE I READ IT: Lancaster, England

FUN FACT ABOUT THE AUTHOR: although George Orwell may be considered one of the best English authors of the XX century, he was not born in England, but in India, in Motihari, when still part of the British Empire. George Orwell was not even his real name, but only the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair.


Title: Books v. Cigarettes

Author: George Orwell

Genre: non-fiction

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 126

Price: £ 4,99

If you’re interested in reading this book, Get your copy here!

In Italia alcuni degli scritti contenuti in “Books v. Cigarettes” possono essere trovati tradotti in “Letteratura palestra di libertà”, edito da Mondadori. Trova qui la tua copia!


5 Comments Add yours

  1. aubreyleaman says:

    This book sounds really interesting! Thanks for sharing. Out of curiosity, have you read 1984?


    1. Unfortunately not yet!! It’s on my bookshelf waiting for me! My to-read list is way too long! 😝

      Liked by 1 person

      1. aubreyleaman says:

        Haha I can definitely empathize with that. (And thanks for following my blog!)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I really like it and absolutely love the name you gave to it!

        Liked by 1 person

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