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Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell

by Venky


The genius of George Orwell lies in the economy of his words. The language employed by Orwell is so sparse and yet so incredibly rich. There is not a single sentence that is irrelevant nor a single passage that is not contextual. “Books v Cigarettes” is a collection of a handful of essays by George Orwell. These essays serve as a beacon of guidance for all aspiring writers who are lacking the requisite confidence to take the initial plunge. In the very first essay bearing the same heading as the title of the book, Orwell bemoans the gradual decline in the reading habit and proceeds to show with great alacrity and even greater ingenuity the costs incurred by a person on average on cigarettes as compared to expenditure incurred on books. Taking his case itself as an example, he first inventories the books owned by and computes the cost per hour of all such books for a year. He then goes on to extend the same logic to the consumption of Woodbine brand of cigarettes and pints of beer. His extrapolations lead to the surprising conclusion that in any year, the amount spent by an individual on alcohol and nicotine comfortably exceeds the amount spent on buying books! This is a rousing essay that is imaginative, illuminating and instructive.

However the essays that leave the most impressions on the reader are two melancholic pieces titled “How The Poor Die” and “Such, Such Were The Joys”, respectively. While “How The Poor Die” elaborates in chilling fashion the deplorable conditions prevalent in a General Hospital in France where Orwell happened to spend a few weeks in a state of indisposition, “Such, Such Were The Joys” elucidates the horror experienced by Orwell when he was schooled as a resident student at the St Cyprian. He looks back at his experience with a clinical sense of calm and unbiased reflection. Reading of these two essays is like referring to a textbook on the art of essay writing!

Books v Cigarettes – Vintage Orwell!

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