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From an Editor’s Notebook:  Twain, Tobacco, and Reviewing

10-08-2021 | By David W. Robinson | Issue 117

Ye Olde Editor in a tobacco moment (photograph by John Robinson)

These thoughts are short and to the point.

High-end audio is filled with reviews (many of those should read "reviews"), arguments, and endless debates about reference standards, ratings, lists, best-ofs, and so on…endlessly.

There are über, no-holds-barred components/systems, at (usually) astronomical prices.

Then again, we have others who champion the view that "what you like most is what's best—for you."

One man's ceiling being another man's floor, and all that.

And thus the gladiatorial combats go.

But…just a couple of days ago, I ran across a brief essay on cigars and the rankery of same by Mark Twain. Caramba! From his book What is Man?, published in 1906, I found that many audiophile arguments happening right now were anticipated quite nicely by Twain. This work is in the public domain, and I share it with you for what it's worth.

Which ought to be a lot, but then again…there are a fair number of audiophile knuckleheads (and other body parts) in the world. Force yourself to relax, eh?

Concerning Tobacco

As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the
chiefest is this – that there is a STANDARD governing the matter,
whereas there is nothing of the kind. Each man's own preference
is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept,
the only one which can command him. A congress of all the
tobacco-lovers in the world could not elect a standard which
would be binding upon you or me, or would even much influence us.

The next superstition is that a man has a standard of his own.
He hasn't. He thinks he has, but he hasn't. He thinks he can
tell what he regards as a good cigar from what he regards as a
bad one – but he can't. He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes
by the flavor. One may palm off the worst counterfeit upon him;
if it bears his brand he will smoke it contentedly and never suspect.

Children of twenty-five, who have seven years experience,
try to tell me what is a good cigar and what isn't.
Me, who never learned to smoke, but always smoked;
me, who came into the world asking for a light.

No one can tell me what is a good cigar – for me. I am the
only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst
cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come
to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them
a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements
which they have not made when they are threatened with the
hospitalities of my box. Now then, observe what superstition,
assisted by a man's reputation, can do. I was to have twelve
personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as
notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and
devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking
borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost
him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of
their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a
box with my favorite brand on it – a brand which those people all
knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They
took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit
them and sternly struggled with them – in dreary silence, for
hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started
around – but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they
made excuses and filed out, treading on one another's heels with
indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe
results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate.
All except one – that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I
had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand.
He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving
people that kind of cigars to smoke.

Am I certain of my own standard? Perfectly; yes, absolutely
 – unless somebody fools me by putting my brand on some other kind
of cigar; for no doubt I am like the rest, and know my cigar by
the brand instead of by the flavor. However, my standard is a
pretty wide one and covers a good deal of territory. To me,
almost any cigar is good that nobody else will smoke, and to me
almost all cigars are bad that other people consider good.
Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana. People think they
hurt my feelings when then come to my house with their life
preservers on – I mean, with their own cigars in their pockets.
It is an error; I take care of myself in a similar way. When I
go into danger – that is, into rich people's houses, where, in the
nature of things, they will have high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt
girded and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge,
cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side
and smell, and will grow hot to the fingers, and will go on
growing hotter and hotter, and go on smelling more and more
infamously and unendurably the deeper the fire tunnels down
inside below the thimbleful of honest tobacco that is in the
front end, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and
telling you how much the deadly thing cost – yes, when I go into
that sort of peril I carry my own defense along; I carry my own
brand – twenty-seven cents a barrel – and I live to see my family
again. I may seem to light his red-gartered cigar, but that is
only for courtesy's sake; I smuggle it into my pocket for the
poor, of whom I know many, and light one of my own; and while he
praises it I join in, but when he says it cost forty-five cents I
say nothing, for I know better.

However, to say true, my tastes are so catholic that I have
never seen any cigars that I really could not smoke, except those
that cost a dollar apiece. I have examined those and know that
they are made of dog-hair, and not good dog-hair at that.

I have a thoroughly satisfactory time in Europe, for all
over the Continent one finds cigars which not even the most
hardened newsboys in New York would smoke. I brought cigars with
me, the last time; I will not do that any more. In Italy, as in
France, the Government is the only cigar-peddler. Italy has
three or four domestic brands: the Minghetti, the Trabuco, the
Virginia, and a very coarse one which is a modification of the
Virginia. The Minghettis are large and comely, and cost three
dollars and sixty cents a hundred; I can smoke a hundred in seven
days and enjoy every one of them. The Trabucos suit me, too; I
don't remember the price. But one has to learn to like the
Virginia, nobody is born friendly to it. It looks like a rat-
tail file, but smokes better, some think. It has a straw through
it; you pull this out, and it leaves a flue, otherwise there
would be no draught, not even as much as there is to a nail.
Some prefer a nail at first. However, I like all the French,
Swiss, German, and Italian domestic cigars, and have never cared
to inquire what they are made of; and nobody would know, anyhow,
perhaps. There is even a brand of European smoking-tobacco that
I like. It is a brand used by the Italian peasants. It is loose
and dry and black, and looks like tea-grounds. When the fire is
applied it expands, and climbs up and towers above the pipe, and
presently tumbles off inside of one's vest. The tobacco itself
is cheap, but it raises the insurance. It is as I remarked in
the beginning – the taste for tobacco is a matter of superstition.
There are no standards – no real standards. Each man's preference
is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept,
the only one which can command him.

Selah, ya'll…and try not to get into any new fights.

Photograph of Ye Olde Editor by John Robinson; all other images are in the public domain.