E-Books vs. Lattes vs. Cigarettes

A premise in this thoughtful essay by Kaya Genç on the trade-offs between buying coffee or books: What would George Orwell choose: e-books or lattes?

Kaya lives in Istanbul, Turkey where international editions of books and magazine subscriptions are more expensive than the digital counterparts. Upgrading to an e-book reader last year, there are lamentations of this sort:

In the good, old, and expensive days of literary shopping I would choose books from the shelves, walk to the counter, pay in cash, and head to a coffee shop with my purchases — the favorite ritual of my teenage years. I would open the first book’s cover, accompanied by a cigarette and a cup of strong Turkish coffee. These would always be very physical experiences: I remember the crinkling pages, the waft of the smoke, the oils of the coffee. Afterward my hands smelled of nicotine; my mind hungered for more books.

Lately, however, this ritual has all but disappeared from my life. My reading materials have been thoroughly digitized. I have lost touch with both the printed book and the banknote. In the long chronicle of my reading habits I am currently living through the age of the .EPUB file and the plastic card. It is a chilly period, I must admit, a dark age, and at times it makes me yearn for the good old days of my undergraduate life. 

Citing Orwell’s Books v. Cigarettes essay, who pinpointed his spending habits on books vs. cigarettes:

To fully estimate his reading expenses he added to the sum the cost of newspapers and periodicals. Orwell typically read two daily papers, an evening paper, two Sunday papers, a weekly magazine, and “one or two” monthly magazines. He added these and the cost of his library subscriptions. In the end he concluded that his “total reading expenses over the past fifteen years have been in the neighbourhood of £25 a year.”

In contrast, he had spent £40 a year on cigarettes. His reading habit was cheaper than his smoking one. The workers had had little reason to complain about the cost of books, he decided. If they were not reading literature it was probably because they found books boring — not because they couldn’t afford them.

In the similar vein, Kaya calculates how much money he spends on coffee vs. e-books:

My e-reading expenditures, then, cost me around $385 — less than my coffee expenditures for the same period, which were in the neighborhood of $1,800. My e-reading habit thus costs only a fifth of my drinking one (maybe a little more when I’m not working on a novel). For every dollar I spent on the likes of Tolstoy I spent four on coffee beans.   

An exercise for the reader: do you spend more on coffee or books/e-books? I will update this post when I finish my own calculations for the year 2013…

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