Books vs. Coffee
Recently, while continuing research on the ever present problem of reading in America, I was reintroduced to an essay George Orwell had written in 1946 that I had completely forgotten. It is titled Books vs. Cigarettes and it was a very enlightening read for me. It dawned on me that the lack of interest in reading that so upsets me on such a regular basis is not actually a new problem at all. In 1946, George Orwell, the harbinger of dystopia, also recognized what shall heretofore be titled The Problem. It caused me to wonder, how many others had written similar essays referencing this very Problem? Unfortunately, the immediate thought following was how many people would it even impact outside of a small group that are already interested in reading?
This leads me to explain why I am writing this blog entry. I don’t expect anyone to read Orwell’s Books vs. Cigarettes because, honestly, it isn’t very applicable to we in the 21st century simply because the question of money, popular culture, and health prevent us from being remotely similar to those that were suffering from The Problem 66 years ago. What is similar, however, is the existence of The Problem, and I propose to bring you my own thoughts on the matter.
First, I must explain that this is really a spending comparison to prove that what people view as being a large, and therefore impossible, expense (books), is comparable to, if not less than, the cost of what we view as being an every day commodity or necessity (cigarettes in Orwell’s essay). I am aware that a great number of people still smoke, but I don’t think that it even remotely compares to tobacco consumption in 1946. So, what I have surmised is that most people today view coffee in much the same way that men viewed tobacco in London, 1946—necessary for survival.
Note: I will be using segments of the original essay. Portions in brackets are my updates to the text.
[The] idea that buying, or even the reading, of books is an expensive hobby and beyond the reach of the average person is so widespread that it deserves some detailed examination. Exactly what reading costs, reckoned in terms of [dollar] per hour, is difficult to estimate, but I have made a start by inventorying my own books and adding up their total price. After allowing for various other expenses, I can make a fairly good guess at my expenditure over the past [year].
The books that I have purchased in the past 365 day period amount to 25 books total, broken up as follows:
- Bought (roughly half are used books) – 20
- Given to me – 2
- Review copies – 2
- Borrowed and have yet to return – 1
- On loan – 2
Now as to the method of pricing. Those books that I have bought I have listed at their full price, as closely as I can determine it. I have also listed at their full price the books that have been given to me, and those that I have temporarily borrowed. This is because book-giving, book-borrowing, and book-stealing more or less even out. I possess books that do not strictly speaking belong to me, but many other people also have books of mine: so that the books I have not paid for can be taken as balancing others which I have paid for but no longer possess. On the other hand, I have listed the review copies at half price.
The cost is roughly as follows:
- Bought – $300
- Gifts - $31.98
- Review Copies - $15.48
- Borrowed - $14.95
- On loan - $24.95
- Total - $387.36
$387.36 seems like quite a lot of money to spend on books in a year, that is, until you begin to measure it against other kinds of expenditure. That is nearly $7.45 per week, and at present that is the equivalent of nearly six 12 oz. regular coffees at Dawson Taylor (my favorite coffee shop). Even beyond this, it is the equivalent of nearly 3 small, regular lattes (without flavor), or 2.5 small flavored lattes. Considering the consumption habits of most people, I would go so far as to say that the average American far exceeds a budget of $7.45 per week in coffee.
Let’s take it a little further, shall we? One movie ticket at full price is $9.50, even at matinee it is $7.25. I can’t say that I go and see movies very often, but to the average movie goer it is considered to be a simple amenity of life, even though it grossly overwhelms my budget for book-buying. Now, I am not saying that one shouldn’t do these things. I personally feel that coffee is heavenly, and as much as I love to read, I also really love a good film. I am simply trying to illustrate that this idea that reading is an expensive hobby is really a fallacious one.
It is difficult to establish any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them. “Books” includes novels, poetry, text books, works of reference, sociobiological treatises, and much else, and length and price do not correspond to one another […] 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. But if one regards reading simply as recreating, like going to the pictures, then it is possible to make a rough estimate of what it costs. If you read nothing but novels and “light” literature, and bought every book that you read, you would be spending—allowing [$10] as the price of a book, and four hours spent in reading it—[$2.50] an hour.
And there lies the problem. Reading has been looked at by a large demographic as being solely a recreational activity, and frankly, investing time into a novel when you can watch two films in the same time span with almost zero effort seems to be an issue for most people. While I do view reading as recreating to an extent, it is also a portal, a key, a looking glass into a magical land, and a book can become the closest of friends.
We live in a country where 50 percent of American adults are unable to read an eighth grade level book (Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America). According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37 percent of fourth graders and 26 percent of eighth graders cannot read at the basic level; and on the 2002 NAEP 26 percent of twelfth graders cannot read at the basic level. That is, when reading grade appropriate text these students cannot extract the general meaning or make obvious connections between the text and their own experiences or make simple inferences from the text. In other words, they cannot understand what they have read (National Assessment of Educational Progress).
Success is dependent upon ones ability to read, and quality of life is dependent upon the enjoyment of reading. I do not think these things are mutually exclusive. Our brains are the largest in the animal kingdom (on average the human brain makes up about 2% of your body weight), and it receives 15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization. We have evolved to use our freakishly large brains on a regular basis, and so I feel that we should! Passionately and voraciously.
So really, this entry has become divided between a simple illustration and my ever present quest to solve The Problem. And even though I have presented this argument for reading from a standpoint in support of purchasing books, the ultimate goal is to encourage you to read. Pick up a book, no matter the shape, size, or genre. Make it a part of your life, and I promise you will be better for it.