Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Books v. cigarettes Review (George Orwell)

Books v. Cigarettes is another fine collection of selected essays by George Orwell in the Penguin Great Ideas series, this one focusing on books, literature in harsh political regimes, patriotism, his time in a run-down hospital in France, and his memoirs of going to a private boarding school. 

Books v. Cigarettes is a somewhat laborious essay where Orwell explains that working class people read fewer books and choose books over things like cigarettes, beer and gambling, not because the habit is expensive but because they’re not interested in it - contrary to their claims that it is. He mathematically works it out and, while I agree that he’s probably right, it’s a bit of a pedantic essay to read. 

Bookshop Memories and Confessions of a Book Reviewer are definitely my favourite essays here as I’m a bibliophile. Orwell spent some time working as a bookseller and his observations from that time are very entertaining. He observes that few customers in the shop could tell the difference between a good book and a bad one, that their clientele were mostly foreign students haggling over cheap textbooks and “vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews”. 

There’s even a line about a “dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover” that reminded me of Jen Campbell’s “Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops” which shows how little people have changed in nearly 100 years. 

It was interesting to find out the three most-read authors of the time were: Ethel M. Dell at #1, Warwick Deeping at #2 and Jeffrey Farnol at #3 - all authors I’ve never heard of, and I consider myself fairly well-read. I suppose in a few decades people will be wondering who the hell James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer were, which is a reassuring thought that such crap gets forgotten! 

These essays display Orwell’s good sense of humour as he observes “stamp collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women apparently fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums”, and his description of the life of a professional book reviewer was very amusing. His line that “Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are” rang true for me as a semi-professional book reviewer. 

The Prevention of Literature explains how great literature or any art form cannot exist in a regime that disallows freedom of thought or religion which gives us the great quote: “To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox”. That said, I felt the essay was something that Orwell had written about before and better elsewhere and was therefore a bit tiresome to read. Similarly unengaging was My Country Right Or Left which goes into Orwell’s patriotism of Britain, regardless of the kind of government in charge. 

How The Poor Die was a visceral recounting of Orwell’s time in a French hospital for the poor where he was being treated for a bronchial infection - Orwell suffered with breathing problems his entire life as he had an untreatable lesion on his lungs which would eventually kill him at the tragically early age of 46. It’s a shocking account of the way patients’ humanity is overlooked by uncaring doctors who are more interested in treating them as living cadavers than real people who need help. 

The volume closes out with Orwell’s excellent essay, Such, Such Were The Joys, which recounts his unpleasant time spent at St Cyprian’s, an upper-class boarding school which he attended on a scholarship and deeply loathed. I wrote about it at length in a separate review you can read here.

Books v. Cigarettes contains a couple of essays that I was ambivalent about but on the whole it contains his usual insightful commentary and uncanny ability to draw the reader into the subject matter completely. Orwell is always worth reading for his high quality writing, crystal clear thinking, and challenging subject matter that he makes accessible for the reader, but this volume is especially enjoyable if you’re a bookish sort of person.

Books v. Cigarettes (Penguin Great Ideas)

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