The value of books

Books v. Cigarettes
by George Orwell

This is part of the Great Ideas range, yet another excellent and also stylish set of paperbacks from Penguin that are either excerpts from longer works or collections of shorter essays, as this one is. They’re small and affordable (unless like me you find you want to buy the whole set – there’s 80 of them so far!) and well designed. And from what I can tell from my sample size of two, the contents have been carefully and skillfully chosen.

It would be hard to go wrong with George Orwell, mind, which may be why Penguin already has three books of his writings in this range. Everything I have read by Orwell – fiction, autobiography, letters, newspaper columns – has been exceptionally well crafted, intelligent but also interesting and accessible. He was very open about things like money, social background, politics and patriotism, which are things we can all relate to and yet seem so rarely to be discussed.

I picked this book up in the wonderful Toppings bookshop in Bath, one of that now rare breed of independent bookshops that are bigger than a shoebox and have a genuinely good selection of books, which was appropriate because two of the selected essays deal with buying and selling books, and I found Orwell’s thoughts on the subject and expectations for its future fascinating. In the opening essay, he compares his spending on books with his spending on tobacco, to see whether there is merit in the claims he often hears that books are too expensive for “normal” people. With some lengthy reasoning and a little maths he concludes that this is rubbish and the true reason that people don’t buy books is that they consider reading to be a dull pastime, not the cost. I wonder what he would have made of the breaking of the Net Book Agreement.

Which brings us to his second essay, on bookselling. Orwell worked in a bookshop for a time and makes some lively, often caustic, observations of regular customers that he remembers. But what I found most interesting were his closing remarks. First, that “any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman” – a surprisingly shortsighted comment from the man who wrote 1984. And second, his description of how working in a bookshop made him fall temporarily out of love with books, almost made them repulsive to him. That was a real surprise to me and I’d like to hear from any booklovers who have worked in a bookshop to see if they felt the same.

The other essays deal with book reviewing (which he is most vicious about, sadly), patriotism (he was just too young to fight in the First World War and felt it very keenly), free speech, his experience of a particularly awful French hospital and his time at boarding school (an endlessly fascinating topic to me, and one that is of great interest here because he was a scholarship boy, so he was an outside observer to the high end of the class system that dominates such schools). It’s a truly excellent selection of writing and I doubt it will be long before I buy more books from this series.

Published 2008 by Penguin. Essays originally published between 1936 and 1952.
Number 57 in the Great Ideas series.
ISBN 978-0-1410-3661-8

One thought on “The value of books

  1. LizC July 8, 2010 at 9:04 am

    I’m always a sucker for pretty books and, since reading ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’ I’m on a mission to read as much of his work as possible – think this may go straight onto my To Buy list!

    As far as bookselling’s concerned, it only fuelled my love of books. It opened my eyes to lots of books that I’d have never come across normally and meant that I spent most of the time with others who loved books too. Admittedly, I did also have dreams in which I would perpetually be trying to re-shelve stock for which there was no space on the shelves, but I never hated the books.

    His comments about educated people earning a living from bookshops is interesting. True, there is little money to be made from bookselling these days, but it used to be the case that an ‘educated’ person could make quite a career for themselves. Most of the people I worked with had at least 1 degree, if not 2, and were doing the job because they liked books and knew a lot about them. In our chain (Ottakar’s, before it was taken over by evil Waterstones) you had the chance to rise through the ranks and even at a junior level could be in charge of purchasing for your section – so because I had a history degree I was trusted to choose history stock. You could write reviews that were published nationally, or get involved with specialist areas you were interested in. These days many of my friends have left because the bigger chains have simply made them checkout assistants – no need for any education at all.

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