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"Books v. Cigarettes" by George Orwell

Books v. Cigarettes - George Orwell

What a wonderful book. Seven essays - all of which are interesting, insightful and readable - and it definitely saves the best until last... 

As with so much of his work the final essay, "Such, Such Were The Joys", is an account of Orwell's school days that combines the personal with the polemical. One minute we're reading a wince-inducing account of the brutality of St Cyprians (Orwell's prep school) and the next this meanders into social history, philosophy and a deconstruction of the pre-WW1 class system. And all of it written with George Orwell's customary clarity and readability. 

Interestingly I came across an article online, on a website set up to celebrate St Cyprians, that pours scorn over Orwell's version of event. Click here to read it. I must admit, and having read both, I think Orwell's version is more credible. 

All the essays are interesting. In the opener, Books v. Cigarettes, Orwell argues, in 1946, that books are a relatively cheap form of entertainment despite many people's assertions to the contrary. He compares the cost of the books he's bought over the years with the amount he's spent on beer and cigarettes, and finds that even with his relatively high book consumption, books cost less than other vices. The same must surely still apply. 

When Orwell wrote his essay, he states that there were 15,000 books published annually in the UK. According to Wikipedia, in 2011 there were 149,800 books published in the UK. What does that tell us? Has the market for reading expanded ten fold in the interim?

Who'd be a book reviewer if Orwell's description in Confessions Of A Book Reviewer is accurate? What's the value of a professional review? Worthless, according to Orwell. Still a book reviewer is better off than a film reviewer who doesn't get to work at home and sells his honour for a glass of inferior sherry

The Prevention of Literature makes a passionate, and when written, a topical, argument describing how totalitarianism, or other all prevailing orthodoxies, crush worthwhile literature, and how the destruction of individual liberty cripples the journalist, the sociological writer, the historian, the novelist, the critic and the poet, in that order. Imagination will not breed in captivity.

Patriotism comes under the Orwell gaze in My Country Right or Left, and Orwell concludes that no substitute has yet been found for patriotism. He even confesses to a faint feeling of sacrilege when he does not to stand to attention during God Save The King.

The penultimate essay How the Poor Die is a real eye opener. I was particularly struck how in the Parisian hospital Orwell describes in 1929, and as a non-paying patient in the uniform nightshirt, the patient primarily a specimen. The doctors and medical students ignoring the individual and discussing the patient as if he were not there. Orwell states he did not resent this but could never get used to it.

This book is a mere 125 pages and every page contains something interesting and enlightening. Proof that good writing never dates.