40 things: just what on earth do I have on my cookbook shelves?

It turns out I have far fewer cookbooks than I thought I had.


One of the problems with guesstimation is that sometimes things aren’t all the same size. A few weeks ago I’d counted up the number of books on a bookshelf, then counted up the number of books on the case, and it worked out at roughly num(b) = num(s) x num(c) and so extrapolated that through the number of bookcases we have in the house. It worked out at about 2600 books, approx 10% of which were “books relating to food” in one form or another.

The problem here, though, is that cookbooks – and textbooks in general – are about ten times the size of, say, a copy of Brave New World. So one cookbook, let’s say Harold McGee’s Food and Cooking, will take up the same amount of shelf space as six or seven copies of Fast Food Nation. But I didn’t really understand this until I went around the house, picked up every book I could find that was related to food or cookery that clearly wasn’t a novel (like Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure or any of Tony Bourdain’s obvious fiction) and stacked them up in the living room.

After going “crikey, that’s a big pile of books” for a while the cats started playing with the tassel ends of the ribbons that the more monumental tomes put in as handy bookmarks so I started catalogueing everything. In the end I decided on several broad categories with crossovers or further segmentation as needed if things got out of hand. The River Cottage handbooks, because they’re identical in size and shape and feel get a category all to themselves, of course. Then there’s “writing about food”. Stuff like Black Gold and Salt go in there, along with biogs of chefs. Baking was seperated from desserts – because you don’t bake ice cream, clearly – and bread got the end of the baking shelf. “General” came in really useful; just books with loads of recipes in. Veggie got its own section, as did “world food”. And I really started to feel sorry for librarians and bookshop owners. Where do I put Larousse? Or Leith? Or Food encylopedias? Or the textbook-style things like McGee or Katz? I ended up making up a “writing/theory” section.


Also, I decided I needed a list. Obviously typing all these things into a computer would take ages, and fiddling about with barcode readers on my phone was also taking too much time to sort out; it was when I started to write my own barcode scanning software that just did what I bloody well wanted instead of all this extra, time-consuming bells and whistles rubbish that I realised I needed to put the technology away and go back to pen and paper. Also, there’s a few of my books that don’t have barcodes, or ISBNs. Of course now I have a catalogue I have to manually update with a biro, but that’s ok.

(For the record there’s some great Python interpreters out there for Android.)

In the end? 159 food-related books (including one duplicate), with another three on loan from other people. About a hundred less than I thought I had. The cookbook library still takes up a full six shelves, though now I understand why. In fact, after lugging around six shelves worth of these things I understand why in quite a fundamental way. My back was killing me.

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3 Responses to 40 things: just what on earth do I have on my cookbook shelves?

  1. What a fun post. Kudos to the amount of work…and backbreaking labor…you put into the quest for counting!

  2. tommfranklin says:

    Clearly, then, you need to step up your cook book buying. That’s the only solution for matching your perceived reality with your current collection numbers.

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