Friday, January 08, 2010

Of Cookbooks and New Year's Resolutions

Happy New Year!

I've never been much good at keeping my New Year's resolutions. But there's one resolution in particular that I've made year after year and broken - rather blithely too, I may add - as many times.

I must, I must buy less cookbooks.

Bah, humbug.

Year after year, it's not so much newfound virtuous intent that spurs me to make that doomed resolution. More like the fear that one fine day in the not-too-distant future those poor particleboard shelves whose load bearing capacity I constantly (and foolhardily) test will finally give way.

Buy another bookcase? Sadly, no can do. As it is, we're virtually walking tippy toe through corridors. Much to my dismay, there's simply no more space to shoehorn in another bookcase.

Besides, it will simply fill in double quick time, thus forcing one to come to grips with the reality that one has issues beyond just being spatially-challenged. The official designated cookbook-shoring stacked-two deep bookshelves aside, there're the sprawling stacks on my bedside table, in my study, on the kitchen counter. These stacks...these stacks have taken on a life of their own. What really started off as a way to disguise new cookbook purchases so the shelves don't look quite so crammed have grown higgledy piggledy squatter style into densely populated semi-permanent settlements.

At some point a couple of years back after the 500-book mark was passed, I stopped keeping tabs. Frankly, I am afraid to know. To put a number on it would be to quantify, to put a face to, the magnitude of my problem. Were I to cook a 5-course meal for lunch and dinner respectively everyday without ever cooking a single recipe twice, I'm going to have to live (and cook) till I'm 113 and then some to truthfully claim to have made some inroads into cooking through those books, let's not even speak of amortization.

So this year, rather than lie to myself and vow to buy less cookbooks, I've resolved instead to become a more discriminating cookbook shopper. Gone are the days (and bookshelf realty) that I can buy a cookbook on a whim, for whatever idiosyncratic reason. Henceforth, a book must possess several merits and not just one before I'll bring it home with me. Chiefly:

Form Is it attractive? Do I love the cover/photography/illustrations/food styling/prop styling/typography/layout/design/authorial voice?

Function Are there at least a handful of recipes I am keen to cook from? Would I like to learn more about the cuisine/ingredient/technique that's the subject of the book? Are the instructions written clearly? Are too many of the recipes tricky to attempt because they call for hard-to-find ingredients and/or esoteric equipment? If book in question is another book on well-represented subjects (eg. chocolate or bread or French or Italian or how to poach an egg/truss a chicken/de-bone a trotter), does it excessively replicate ground already comprehensively (and better) covered in material I currently own?

A cookbook should boast of at least 2 attributes (ideally one from each category) before I'll call it mine. It's hardly a tall order, but I am hoping the act of simply pausing to consider the place a said book has in one's collection will go a long way towards keeping profligate purchasing in check.

Wish me luck!


Blogger Woolly Mammoth said...

Happy New Year, and good luck sticking to your resolution! Mine is a similar one, except it applies to balls of yarn and yards of fabric. I need to stop buying new supplies and start using up the old stuff :)

10:30 pm, January 08, 2010  
Blogger vanillasugarblog said...

whose bookcase photo is that? that is stunning and overwhelming. Love the bookcases though.

10:42 pm, January 08, 2010  
Blogger Claudia said...


From all the blog writers I read and have ever read up to this day you are by far the one who really seems to understand the reason d'etre of cookbooks. You get into them, you understand them, expose them, deconstruct them, historicise them and it is delicious to read you. But it doesn't make me want to buy books. I am your opposite, I don't buy cookbooks, I buy very few books in general because I don't like cluttered home, I borrow them, I don't believe in buying, having or collecting. I don't like to have too many of something, it just sounds wrong to me. Even a little bit environmentally unfriendly.

But I miss the J. behind the books, what she can say by herself. When you say you buy too many books I agree and I wish you could make a challenge to leave the books behind. Challenge yourself to cook from your mind and heart, with your live as soule inspiration. Independent. Leave behind the admiration, respect and inspiration that you take from books and chefs and author and write your own history.

Write your own book, tell your own stories, become the reference you have to be, provoke us with your amazing writing and cooking skills and let these books go... one by one, start by giving the bad ones away...

It is time for you to write a book and leave these you own alone for a while...


11:01 pm, January 08, 2010  
Anonymous Justina said...

Hi Joycelyn

Happy New Year, hope you had a great holiday.

This looks so familiar....coz i have the same bookcase filled with cookbooks of course but so much lesser than your collection :p We just cannot stop buying :)

Looking forward to your classes in 2010.


11:59 pm, January 08, 2010  
Anonymous Kitchen Butterfly said...

I'm in your camp, though I have nothing close to 500 books. Don't even think I have a hundred........

Wishing you all the luck you need. You could always send me some :-)

3:30 am, January 09, 2010  
Anonymous Marian (Sweetopia) said...

Is that an image of your bookshelves?

What an awesome collection! Regardless, if you have over 500 books you've got a formidable library too.

Mine is no where near that size, but I understand your feelings! Besides my favorite 'savoury' books from Barefoot Contessa (her recipes always turn out!), I have an extensive collection of 'sugar art' ones... It's compulsive really. ;-) Like you though, at least there are projects to keep us busy (inspired and happy) for a long, looong time.

Wishing you all the best with your new resolution!

7:03 pm, January 09, 2010  
Blogger Luis Colan said...

I'm afraid you're not the only one facing a book collecting problem, if one can call it that. I as well, have run out of book shelves for my collection of art books. I've managed to build a nice library of artist's monographs and after realizing that I was spending too much money and space in such books, I moved on to buying smaller, less expensive art history and criticism books. This of course doesn't help since now that I pay less for these books, it allows me to purchase more each trip I take to the book store. My problem doesn't end there!!! As an artist, I buy and buy, and keep buying art materials, which seems I'll never get to use. I'm running out of space for everything in my apartment. But in the end, these are the things that make me happy! I'm sure cookbooks do the same for you. I don't know what to tell you about your resolution. Passion, most times, seems to over power rationalization! I know I will not stop buying art books and art materials. Best of luck to you and happy new year! =)

1:21 am, January 10, 2010  
Anonymous veron said...

Oh my God, and I thought I had it bad. Shoehorn another cookbook...hahaha...
I purge books all the time, there are some that are pretty but I just have not used and they do go to storage in a basement. If I do have a wall like yours though, I'd probably display them.
So, you've been asked this before, I think it was a meme...what is your Sophie's choice cookbook? ;)

10:21 am, January 10, 2010  
Blogger Jencrafted said...

I'm just starting to collect cookbooks so you can send those my way ;-)
I agree with Claudia. Time for you to write your own book. Be inspired! Write from your heart!
Waiting for that first book........

8:09 am, January 11, 2010  
Blogger Lylou said...

I've the same problem. I always tell to myself i won't buy cookbook anymore but I keep on buying some other one because there are some new books more beautiful than the olders.

Désolé pour mon anglais mais je suis française ;-)

1:52 am, January 12, 2010  
Anonymous purinne said...

hihi :) mayb u can consider selling (garage sale or online ones ) some of the older cookbooks to make room for the new ones? :) ... just a suggestion :)

happy new year~ :)

9:44 pm, January 13, 2010  
Blogger nikcreate said...

hi jocelyn,

I'll be willing to get those books off your bookshelves! haha :D

But honestly, I love reading cookbooks too.

Would love to attend one of your class when I do get my chance to visiting singapore

9:46 pm, January 13, 2010  
Anonymous keiko said...

Dearest Joycelyn - read this fab post with great anticipation :) Though my collection is not as grand as yours, I totally understand how you feel and I love your practical approach for new year :) Good luck and let us know how it goes! LOVE the photo by the way - just looking at those books makes me happy (and your cute little doggie & my fav chair!) ;) kxxx

1:20 am, January 14, 2010  
Anonymous june2 said...

The collection IS gorgeous, and a little sick ~ to use teen slang. I love the mesmerized look on your dog! Too funny. Your plan for the new year sounds like a very good one, good luck!

6:42 pm, January 15, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy new year! I know what you mean about the cookbook
'problem'. I try to convince myself it's a little healthier than obsessing over designer bags and the like. But, it is especially difficult when Kinokuniya has a 20% off sale...then I may just lose a little control.

11:02 pm, January 16, 2010  
Blogger S said...

i have also had a cookbook problem, but like you, i have to try to control my addiction. you have such a beautiful collection already. my main issue is magazines, i dont think i can ever stop purchasing food related magazines!

3:23 am, January 18, 2010  
Blogger Parisbreakfasts said...

LOVE the browsing dogie...
I have way too many books too

9:54 pm, January 22, 2010  
Anonymous MMM said...

hahaha I'm glad I have company in my insanity. 500 was last count 20 years ago. Right now they are in shelves, cupboards, giant Rubber maid buckets in the basement, under the bed and even in the Jacuzzi. Are there any hints as to how to file these??? I have tried according to countries but then there are those in sets. Any advice would be much appreciated. Sometimes I would end up with 2-3 copies of the same book. Same for my baking stuff. Thanks

11:23 pm, January 24, 2010  
Blogger Sean Thomas McGill said...

I'm exactly the same way with cookbooks. I especially love the ones I almost certainly will never use. At a yard sale (for only $150!) I bought a 30 year old copy of The Joy of Jell-O. It was in such great shape! The pictures were pretty! It was only $1.50! Still, I think the last time I actually ate Jell-O was when the book was initially published.

7:20 am, February 03, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! Just discovered your blog today. Hope my message isn't too late to be read because I think I can pass on some info that might help with your collection.

I, too, have hundreds of cookbooks - and hundreds of others in varying categories.

I wanted and needed to know the exact size of my collection for (1) curiosity, (2) insurance purposes - if we ever had a tornado hit or a fire - I would want to be able to restore my collections as well as I could, and (2) to avoid buying duplicates - oh, yes, I am just now starting to have that happen.

So, I found a website, that allows me to enter my books, put tags on each, display covers, review, share with others and all sorts of things. It is absolutely absorbing. Plus, you get to view the library holdings of other like-minded folks. (Can always use a new source of info.)

Anyway, you can add 200 books into your library free. If you have more (and some folks have into the thousands - plus, institutions can do this as well), you pay $25 for a lifetime subscription.

For $15 more, you can order a reader that will enter the ISBN number of each book automatically. That way, you do not have to enter the ISBN or title manually. Sure saves time. Either with the reader or by hand, the site will take the ISBN and go out and find cover art and other info for you and then add that to your collection.

You are in total charge of your collection. You can even decide to keep it private or share it with others. There are also options to join various book clubs onsite, to ask to receive free books from publishers, and, well all sorts of stuff.

If you have a medium to large collection of any type of book, do consider this site.

So far, I am just using the free option, but I am almost full on that and I've just entered what I've recently read from the library.

Oh - and you can enter books as owned, read but not owned, to read, and other categories. Great fun.

Best of all - you actually get a record of what you have so you can decide what you need (to buy, to keep, or get rid of/share).

Good luck. Great blog.

6:54 am, February 17, 2010  
Anonymous melissa said...

Dear J, long time no talk! You know, I had a feeling the scope of your book collection would be awe-inspiring, but I found myself staring at the above photo in disbelief (tinged with no small amount of envy). Mine feels absolutely paltry by comparison, particularly as it was reduced in size by about a third thanks to our recent moves. That said, at the moment I have, for the first time in years, empty space on my shelves - and therefore no reason at all to attempt to rein in my book-buying impulses. It's an odd and wonderful feeling. Are you envious of me now? ;)

9:47 pm, February 19, 2010  
Blogger Pille said...

I'm a bit late for this discussion, apologies. Your cookbook shelf looks indeed impressive, much more so than mine (though mine isn't sa,, either :))
Just wondering - did you ever get that Georgian cookbook we spoke about back in 2006? I cooked numerous recipes from there over the last few week (was teaching two cooking classes on that cuisine), and was thinking of you :)

3:11 am, March 23, 2010  

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