Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Why are we reading less? Is it because books are expensive?

In a 1946 essay, ‘Books v Cigarettes’, George Orwell explored, with penetrating and amusing insight, the reading and book-buying habits of his fellow Englishmen. He took the assumption — as prevalent in the England of 1946 as the India of 2008 — that “the buying, or even the reading, of books is an expensive hobby and beyond the reach of the average person”, and showed how much of a myth it was.

Taking the national average of smoking and drinking, Orwell demonstrated how “the [annual] cost of reading, even if you buy books instead of borrowing them and take in a fairly large number of periodicals, does not amount to more than the combined cost of smoking and drinking”.

I returned to Orwell’s essay after noticing over and over again just how few of us in public places have a book with us. How many people have you seen reading in an airport/on a plane/on the beach/having a solitary meal/on a park bench/at a salon/on a train or bus/in a doctor’s waiting room? Perhaps the only pleasure of travelling in an aeroplane nowadays — in what Jonathan Raban called its “sealed pod” — is to be able to read undistracted, free of the clutter and the white noise of our own lives. Phones can’t ring. Strangers don’t usually try and make conversation. Emails don’t ping in. Is there a better time?

Yet we don’t, really, do we? More...

See also: Who is Haruki Murakami?

And this: A list of 100 must-read books...

And this: Reading a book on the KKK is ... racial harassement?

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