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"Books vs. Cigarettes" is George Orwell's defense of reading as a viable, renewable, and relatively inexpensive hobby, versus cigarettes as one-time consumables. Because books may be bought once and read many times, Orwell considers them superior to cigarettes as entertainment.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a newspaper editor, was firewatching 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."
(Orwell, "Books vs. Cigarettes," george-orwell.com)
After this anecdote, Orwell sums up his own expenditures on books over the years, compared in round terms to spending on tobacco. He uses himself as an example, being in his opinion an above-average reader, and shows how even a large volume of books costs less by the year than cigarettes and are reusable besides. Orwell mentions the subjective nature of the value one receives from reading or smoking, and examines the value of a dictionary that costs little and is of use for years afterwards. The contrast with smoking is obvious; a cigarette can only be smoked once, while a book lasts for years. However, Orwell also allows that reading is less exciting than gambling or drinking, a subjective entertainment, unlike alcohol and cigarettes which are enjoyed in broadly similar ways. This leads him to his final point, refuting the initial anecdote; reading is not uncommon because of expense, but because it is less exciting and usually not done in company.
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