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George Orwell contemplates his cigarette.

George Orwell. Image: The Orwell Archive.

One of the remarkable things about ‘Bookshop Memories’—George Orwell’s steely-eyed reminiscence of his brief stint as a bookseller between 1934 and 1935—is how little the book trade has changed in the nearly 90 years since he wrote it. Eccentrics still insistently place special orders for books with titles like Agrarian Behaviour in the Indus River Valley 3500-1700 BCE that they will never collect. The powdery corpses of insects still line the shelves. And yes, customers continue to request books of which the only distinguishing detail they can recall is the colour of the cover. Reading Orwell’s essay today is to feel reassured that, despite the social and technological revolutions which have occurred since the 1930s, at least some aspects of our collective life remain obstinately perennial.

In another of his essays on books, 1946’s ‘Books v. Cigarettes’, Orwell uses an overheard remark by a factory worker regarding the expense of books as the departure point for a discussion of whether books are an expensive undertaking compared to smoking and other popular leisure activities of the time. We might expect Orwell, the avowed bibliophile, to find that books are indeed more affordable. He duly does so, enumerating his own expenditure on books and comparing this to the cost of his tobacco habit. His conclusion? ‘That reading is one of the cheaper recreations: after listening to the radio probably THE cheapest’.

Rereading ‘Books v. Cigarettes’ recently, I found myself wondering if Orwell’s verdict still applies today (swapping out radio for podcasts of course). While some might recoil at Orwell’s main point of comparison—and anyway, surely in 2023, given the million and one things vying for our attention, it’s not so much a question of books v. cigarettes as books v. everything—I thought it fitting to start where Orwell did. 

Rereading ‘Books v. Cigarettes’ recently, I found myself wondering if Orwell’s verdict still applies today.

A pack of cigarettes these days costs around the same price as a new standard hardcover ($49.99, give or take, unless you’re Prince Harry), noticeably more than a C-format paperback ($29.99 to $34.99), and about twice as much as a B-format paperback (around the $20 mark). (And these are at the recommended retail price set by the publishers. One thing Orwell got wrong—the impossibility of the book trade’s vulgarisation by independent bookseller-squeezing ‘combines’. This has, of course, come to pass, chiefly in the form of Amazon and discount department stores which often sell books close to cost price as a loss-leading strategy.) If I were a pack-a-day smoker purchasing my preferred variety of cigarette, Marlboro Ice Blast (I know, I know), at $49.95 per packet of 25s it would set me back $18,231.75 a year—enough to buy a new MG3 Auto, this first edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four or 40 grams of cocaine. 

Orwell tells us that he spent £25 a year on ‘reading expenses’—that is, books as well as newspapers and periodicals. This equates to about $1,600 in today’s money. While Orwell noted that his time as a bookseller diminished his love and therefore purchasing of books, I found the opposite to be true. Every other day it seemed I was seduced by an interesting new book of which I probably would have remained ignorant had my job not been to sell interesting new books (and lie about the rest). In the four years I worked as a bookseller at an independent bookshop in Adelaide’s CBD, I spent around $500 in the shop per year ($650 if not for my staff discount of 30 per cent), about the same again elsewhere, plus $500 on journal, magazine and newspaper subscriptions. That’s $1,500 per year on books and other reading material—about the same as Orwell, but considerably more than the average Australian.

A 2018 joint study by the Australian National University and the University of Nevada revealed that on average Australians own 148 books per household, less than Estonians, Germans or Russians (but a few more than Americans and Britons). As I write these words, I’m expecting the arrival of most of my books from Tarndanya/Adelaide (I moved with my family to Naarm/Melbourne last year). There are 35 boxes in all, containing perhaps 525 books. Adding the 300 or so already in our house, that’s 825 altogether—not far off Orwell’s total of 900. Assuming around half I purchased new and half secondhand, with the new books averaged at $30 a book and the secondhand ones at $15 (likely an underestimate), that’s a total value of around 12 grand. Of course, were I to actually sell them, most would fetch much less than what I paid for them.

A 2018 study revealed that Australians own 148 books per household.

According to the Australia Council’s 2017 Reading the Reader survey, 57 per cent of Australians think books are too expensive. We are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis so, on one level, I can understand this. Books, like everything from illicit drugs to tech products, are also more costly in Australia than in comparable overseas markets owing to our geographical remoteness, and our small and diffuse population. Sharp increases in shipping and printing costs during the past few years, caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, have also had the effect of pushing up the price.

In my time as both a reader and bookseller, I’ve watched the price of Popular Penguins—an iteration of those iconic, colour-coded paperbacks established in the 1930s to counter the relative unaffordability of hardcover volumes—edge up and up, today retailing at $14.99. (When Penguin Books were introduced in 1935, while Orwell was still working at Booklover’s Corner, they sold for sixpence—2½ pence, or 5 cents to us, in today’s money!) At the same time, I’ve been known to baulk at the price of the odd book that crossed my path while bookselling. A $70 Allen Lane hardback, for example, or a recent debut memoir by an Australian writer costing $35 in a 270-page trade paperback with enormous, lavishly spaced text.     

However, to come back to Orwell’s point, I think it’s still worth asking not simply how much books cost, but by what comparison do most of us find them too costly? To start with something that will be closer to home for most people than smoking, let’s admit that many of us wouldn’t think twice about paying $30—about the price of a new trade paperback—for a cafe breakfast no more elaborate than a coffee and a piece of toast adorned with a smear of avocado, a poached egg and some microgreens.

To consider a more discretionary expense, an adult ticket to the latest Guardians of the Galaxy at my local chain cinema costs $25.50. Add the cost of a small popcorn and soft drink, $16.80, and that’s two and a half hours’ entertainment totalling $42.30, or around $10 more than the average new release novel. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, a seat in the stalls at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Happy Days, opening the week I am writing this, would cost me between $99 and $122.

Books, like everything from illicit drugs to tech products, are also more costly in Australia than in comparable overseas markets owing to our geographical remoteness, and our small and diffuse population.

These are, of course, occasional expenditures, even for the more well-off among us. What about subscription TV services, which Australians spend 15.4 hours a week using? On average, Australians spend $39 a month to subscribe to services like Netflix and Disney+, an amount around 80 per cent of us believe to represent good value for money. Certainly, this figure doesn’t sound like much next to attending the cinema, theatre or sports stadium. But, given that the average Australian is an ‘occasional reader’ who only reads at most one book every 15 weeks—fewer than four a year, which hews closely to the three books Orwell guessed the average reader in his time bought annually—most of us are spending more on streaming than books. (Collectively, our spending on streaming in 2022 was $6 billion against $1.4 billion on new books.) The Reading the Reader survey also tells us this: almost as many people borrow books (41 per cent) as buy them (43 per cent). It is, I think, just as unconvincing to argue in 2023 that books are too expensive as it was in Orwell’s day.  


Why do I own so many books, most of which I will probably never read (especially now that I have a baby, and most nights struggle to get through more than a few pages)? There isn’t a simple answer to this question, although one almost childishly straightforward response does present itself: I like books, in a way that is both connected and unconnected to the actual reading of them. I like them as objects, their solidity and heft. I like their texture and smell, a vanilla-ish musk of decaying paper, ink and glue. I like them as interdimensional gestures towards other times, other places, other modes of thinking and being. I like the way they furnish a room and draw the eye, and I’m interested in how they’ve been designed, sometimes by minds as ingenious as the authors themselves, to achieve this. I like that, as with a friend, you never know when a particular juncture in life might cause you to turn to them in search of guidance or solace—or a belly laugh.

This is, I suspect, how most people prefer to think and speak of books: not in terms of their monetary worth but with respect to what we might call their intrinsic (or simply real) value. The 2018 study concluded that having more books in the house ‘gave people life-long improvements in education, regardless of social advantage or disadvantage’. As Orwell recognised, the amount of money that we hand over for a book often bears little relationship to the mark it leaves on our lives. Even ‘occasional readers’ tacitly acknowledge this. One of the more intriguing findings of the Reading the Reader survey was that, despite their greater investment of time in other leisure pursuits, the majority of Australians regard reading books as more pleasurable than browsing the internet or watching television.

It is, I think, just as unconvincing to argue in 2023 that books are too expensive as it was in Orwell’s day.  

Perhaps this can be explained by nothing more mysterious than the fact that most people—myself included—aren’t able to read as much as they want to on account of the vicious squeezing of our leisure time by the demands of life under advanced capitalism. Even the cheap thrillers extolled by Orwell—still the kind of thing the Australian public most likes to read today, according to the Australia Council—can, after an 8- or 12-hour working day, feel like a more onerous proposition than a 60-minute episode of a TV show.

But I think something else is going on here too. In calling his essay ‘Bookshop Memories’, Orwell was already signalling the nostalgic aura of the book trade, and by extension reading in general, as long ago as the 1930s. Today, if anything, this nostalgia has grown. Perhaps there has always been something ontologically wistful in our connection to books, the way they stand in for bygone and perhaps beloved times. But in an era of mass, technologised distraction—much of it calculated to hook us into addictive relationships with our devices and what they promise—books, for many of us, conjure nothing less than a sort of pre-internet Arcadia. The internet proliferates with op-eds by writers my age and older reminiscing about their glorious, low-tech adolescences spent lazily ingesting one book after another like so many pistachio nuts. Bookstagram accounts showcase more books than their (often young) content creators could ever possibly read.

Nostalgia, of course, requires a certain amount of forgetting. While Orwell eulogised books, he was also at pains to avoid sentimentalising them. He reminded his readers, citing his time as a bookseller as evidence, that the vast majority of books—as well as the reviews they generate—are simply not very good (and that even the bad ones occasionally need to be dusted and hauled from one place to another). We forget, too, that most of the bestselling books of today—cookbooks, film and TV tie-ins, celebrity biographies, BookTok-endorsed romances—will be forgotten tomorrow. So too will the ‘literary’ fiction so often hyperbolised by the tastemakers of Book Twitter.

Are bad books bad for you? Orwell thought not, if his views on potboiling murder stories are anything to go by. Most bookish people, I suspect, would agree, arguing that any reading is better than none, that the kids picking up Harry Potter today could be thumbing through Zadie Smith tomorrow. I’m not sure about that. The evidence, it seems, is mixed. ‘Potter’s magic spell turns boys into bookworms’, once trumpeted the Guardian, while the New York Times had it that ‘the series, in the end, has not permanently tempted children to put down their Game Boys and curl up with a book instead’.

Books, for many of us, conjure nothing less than a sort of pre-internet Arcadia.

Either way, let us finish, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin writing of his own library, in an anticipatory rather than elegiac mood. Since I began this essay, my boxes of books have arrived, stacked now in precarious, Jenga-like colonnades in the garage. I’ve peeked into one or two, pulling back the packing tape just enough to glimpse this or that spine or cover, some I’d forgotten ever having acquired, others as familiar as old friends. I’m horrified at the absence of order, the thought of where I’m going to put them all. I’m a little bit impressed, as any accumulator of objects is, with how many I’ve amassed, evidence of obsession or compulsion. To open one of these boxes is not unlike opening a book for the first time, the collector like the reader thrumming with expectancy. In this way we touch the past, touched by what Benjamin called ‘the chaos of memories’. We lean forwards too.

In the end it is perhaps enough that, as Orwell says, there are ‘books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life’. The value of such books is, of course, beyond measure.