Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Purging the Book Collection: The Nonfiction Edition

stacks of gardening books

I had no issue getting rid of my fiction paperbacks and most old school books years ago. My cookbooks and sewing/needlework & gardening books are another story. It's interesting that most "declutter the books" posts seem geared toward fiction. — comment from JustGail on my last book decluttering post

JustGail, that's an interesting observation! So let's focus on the nonfiction in this post. There's the obvious set of questions to ask yourself when going through those books, such as: Am I still interested in this type of cooking, gardening or crafting? Can I find similar information on the web if I ever want it? But I'm guessing you already know that, so I went looking for other people's perspectives, to see if I could find anything useful for you.

Over on Chowhound, there was a long Q &A with Mark Bittman, which included this exchange:
Scottbowling: Hi, Mark! Could you offer any suggestions for a home cook who wants to take his or her cooking up to the next level or branch out to different cuisines? What do you do when you're feeling adventurous in the kitchen?

Mark Bittman: You just keep cooking; you get new cookbooks and try new things and you try different versions of the same thing. Eventually, you give the cookbooks away. But that takes a while.

The Dairy Queen: Dear Mr. Bittman, wait, you say above "eventually you give the cookbooks away?" Don't you need to continue to refer to them for reference? How do you decide which books to keep and which to give away?

OMGTehAwsome: I'm no Mark Bittman, but I can answer #1. You give them away when you longer need them and feel comfortable enough that you can improvise if you have to. I used to follow the same recipe for focaccia word for word. After a while I'd just verify my quantities now and then, "was it a cup or a cup and a quarter?" At this point I just know it by heart, though I might still add a little extra rosemary. But I just like rosemary.
And here's just a tiny part of a wonderful long post by Adam Roberts, called The Great Cookbook Purge of 2009. Go read the whole post; it's delightful.
I lifted the first book: the Larousse Gastronomique. An enormous red tome, this is the French encyclopedia of gastronomy, filled with French cooking techniques and dishes and even recipes. But did I ever use it? NEVER. A big, all-caps NEVER. The few times I'd lifted it off the shelf to study it, I found myself flipping through the pages dutifully, but unenthusiastically. I'd never found anything I wanted to cook in there. And when, in the course of my cooking life, I came across a French cooking term or technique I needed to learn, I didn't turn to Larousse: I turned to the internet. So why did I need it? I didn't. And did I love it? The answer was no.

So I put it in a pile. And then I continued. Oh, how I continued. ...

It all comes down to trust. Do you use it, do you love it, but—most importantly—do you trust it? The ones that I kept are books that I trust absolutely.
Moving on to gardening, here's something from Amy Stewart of Garden Rant, who did a garden book purge after an earthquake dumped the books on the floor, which sort of jump-started the process. OK, she owns a bookstore, so it's not quite the same as for those of us who don't, but her words might still be helpful. After all, we can still find books at our local libraries — or someone else's bookstore.
I'm motivated to do a garden book purge in part because I need the bookshelf space, but in part because I just want to lighten my load psychologically. Because we own a bookstore, it's much easier for me to let go of books. I know that I can always get more if I need them. There's something about owning 50,000 books that are all neatly shelved and arranged at the store. It makes me feel like I can let go of some of the ones I have here.

What do I find myself keeping? Books that my friends wrote. Books with beautiful pictures. A few indispensable reference books. But that's it. The rest of it can go.
And here's a post from Julia about purging a number of things, including a stack of knitting books. The whole post is interesting; this is just a short part of it.
Part of this was just being pragmatic: paring down books that basically repeated information I have in other, more frequently used books. Some had patterns I once thought I’d make but no longer fancied – and, in some cases, couldn’t imagine why on earth I thought that was a good look in the first place. Others had patterns I still thought I might one day make if I met someone who could perhaps kind of get away with wearing that sweater.

But if it hadn’t happened in five or ten years, I think I can accept that it probably wasn’t going to happen. So if you’ve been holding your breath, waiting for the color block cardigan with removable zippered sleeves, I’m sorry.

I also realized that I acquired a number of these books at a time when there weren’t so many knitting websites around. Now I can get a lot of these patterns – or similar ones – online. Or I can check the books out of the library. In other words, let the public library and the internet house the clutter. It’s outta here!
Finally, for more on the subject, you might look at these prior posts:
Decluttering the Cookbooks
Books: Weeding the Collection

[photo by ulle.b, licensed under Creative Commons]


Anonymous said...

with the cook books - I found that having a scanner attached to my PC allowed me to scan the few recipes I used in certain books (then print them and put them in a plastic sheet protector & keep in my recipe notebook) - then I could give away that specific book. I ended up giving up all most 1/2 of my collection (which was wonderful!) as many books had just a few things that I referenced!

Jeri Dansky said...

Anonymous, thanks for pointing out what I neglected to mention - and for letting us know how well scanning has worked out for you.

The same thing could apply to many nonfiction books of the sort JustGail mentioned - where there may be just a few pages that feel like must-saves.

JustGail said...

Thanks for finding these links, Jeri. I don't think I ever saw the "do you trust it" criteria (in the Great Cookbook Purge" post) for keeping a book before. And the "that hanging on to the maybes is far more important if you don’t like the actualities" part from Julia's post - I think that hit a bit too close to reality for me.

Hmmm - the capcha is "mocks" I wonder if that's a good or bad omen about my plans for doing some decluttering next week?

Jeri Dansky said...

JustGail, I'm glad you're finding useful ideas in these posts. Thank you for the comment that got me looking for them!

I've never seen the "do you trust it" criteria articulated before, either - and I think it's a good one. And while I have seen other people writing about the whole issue of holding onto things in order to keep all those possibilities open, Julia had a very special way of wording it.

And the capcha? Let's assume it's a good omen.

DebraC said...

Decluttering cookbooks can be a challenging issue. I prefer to organize recipes on my computer, and to keep my cookbook collection to a one shelf allocation on my bookshelf. That also includes loose recipes file away in a folder. Beyond that, it's time to declutter, especially recipes and cookbooks that you haven't used in a while.

Marcie Lovett said...

Another insightful post, Jeri. I moved cookbooks and craft books across the country because I couldn't imagine letting them go. Then I got more. At some point I realized that there was redundancy in the books and kept only the ones that were the most useful, including basic instructions.

Now I actually use what I have and enjoy them more. I enjoy having the extra space, too.

I know that it's not easy for everyone to let go of excess, so I recommend starting slowly. Pick one or two that you really don't refer to anymore and repeat the process periodically.

As Anonymous does, I scan pages that I want to keep, although I don't print them out until I'm ready to use them. I go through my electronic files, too, periodically and let go of the ones with exotic ingredients or complicated directions.