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Articles > Life in the United Arab Emirates > Can you put a price on knowledge?

By Daniel Bardsley

I enjoy reading books. In fact, I cannot imagine how much of my time I have spent with my face buried in some paperback or other.

Unfortunately, I rarely manage to devour anything particularly highbrow. A few of the books I have read, many of which now sit in a cardboard box in my wardrobe, are throwaway novels or collections of short stories.

Mostly though I tend to read non-fiction, often the memoirs of foreign correspondents whose lives and careers have been far more exciting than mine. When I am not devouring the latest autobiography from the likes of Michael Buerk or Richard Lloyd Parry, I enjoy books set in countries I have recently visited. Currently I am ploughing my way through a volume on modern-day China and reading a book about the murder of an Armenian priest in New York in the 1930s (although I recently visited Armenia, not America).

While reading takes up a lot of my time, I sometimes wonder why I bother because the information just seems to go in one eye and out the other. I can barely remember anything from the scores of books gathering dust in boxes here or at my parentsí home in England. After many years of enjoyment from books, I have now accepted that reading is worth doing for the simple pleasure it gives, even if it is not mind-improving.

When you compare the simple pleasure of reading with the cost of buying a book, it comes out as tremendously good value. Perhaps the best value of anything you can think of.

You might pay, say, Dh42 or Dh56 for a paperback volume from a store in the UAE. At a very rough estimate, I would imagine a 250-page book gives me about 30 hours of reading pleasure. That translates to less than Dh2, or about $0.50, per hour. There canít be many other things that give so much enjoyment for so little.

Compact discs are pretty good value, too, especially if they are by your favourite band or singer and you are likely to listen to them repeatedly. I have lost count of how many times I have played the 1991 album Guaranteed by the British band Level 42, but it must run into the high hundreds or possibly more Ė all for an investment of about £10 (Dh61). That must work out at even better value than the average book, which is saying something.

The two small lights in my bedroom were a pretty good investment, too, as I got them in a sale at a store in Dubai and they have allowed me to still function after dark, even though the bulbs in the ceiling packed up months ago and have not been replaced.

But there are many other things that are not remotely worth the price we are asked to pay for them.

A coffee in an international chain is usually about Dh16 for, at most, an hourís enjoyment. Thatís appalling.

A weekís food is pretty bad, too. I must get through about Dh120 a week all told, although it does have the merit of keeping me alive.

Even worse value is entertainment, particularly in the UAE. A cheap night out is Dh50, which looks awfully expensive when you consider that it is only likely to last about three hours on average and is bad for your health.

And bringing up the rear when it comes to value must be accommodation, which makes everything else, even nights on the town, seem like they are worth the expense. I have to shell out more than Dh4,000 a month simply for the privilege of having a roof over my head. Thatís just about double when I spend on everything else put together in a typical month.

Anything that is transient, it therefore seems, is poor value for money, while anything you can keep is worth the price tag.

Unfortunately, though, buying something you can keep entails an element of risk that barely applies to purchases where the pleasure is fleeting.

For each of the books I have bought that has given me hours of pleasure, there is another that I have begun reading only to discard after a few pages.

Also, I have lost count of how many CDs I have bought and listened to a few times before deciding I was not keen on them and throwing them out.

Disposable purchases are the only thing you can almost be sure you will make use of properly.

At least when you shell out on a high-priced coffee you can be pretty certain you will not end up spitting out the first mouthful and pouring the rest away.

So the conclusion is this: buy more of the things in life that are bad value, and fewer of those that are good value.

It makes sense.

Daniel Bardsley's email: dbardsley@thenational.ae

Source: "The National", Abu Dhabi, 01 July 2009

Added: Sunday, July 12, 2009
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