Managing your collection to make it work for you

For the last month, I've been doing the unthinkable - I've been giving away cookbooks. I'll give you all a moment to collect yourselves before I go on.  

Right now, I've probably purged about 1,000 books. Six hundred were donated and 400 I lost when our basement flooded. Of those 400, I repurchased less than a dozen. I allowed nice young men to drag off - in a very undignified manner - those 338 books that were too damaged to donate in industrial strength garbage bags. In that flood I lost, my entire collection of Fine Cooking, Saveur Magazines and all those Christmas baking magazines I have collected for years and that's okay - I hadn't gone back to any of those in years and what they were doing was taking up space. A note regarding magazines - call your thrift stores before heading there some locations won't take them. 

Besides the purging of cookbooks, I have been releasing myself of the surly bonds of excessive pots, pans, bakeware, bundt pans and baking tins and it truly feels wonderful. People have asked me to share my criteria in deciding which books stay and which books go - I can only tell you what is working for me. You might need to sit down for this...

Step One - Don't open the book. Once you open the book - you are screwed - that looks good, I'll make that some day, all those fake promises to yourself - don't believe that voice - she has good intentions but she lies! I won't live long enough to make all the dishes I want to make and the truth of the matter is there are so many amazing cookbooks coming out each year that I want to make room for the must haves.

My cooking and what I love in a cookbook has evolved over the years. Avert your eyes....I don't need Joy of Cooking, Taste of Home or those easy five ingredient cookbooks. There is absolutely nothing wrong with those titles - but they are not for me. Food Network celebrities - save Ina and Giada - those books are gone. For major cuisines, I'm keeping the best of the best and new books are coming out all the time - and frankly I am loving the beauty of the newer titles. Yes, I am falling captive to the allure of the pretty books.

At this point in my life, I want an adventure, recipes I've never made before, gorgeous photographs to whisk me away and exotic cuisines to bring me closer to understanding the food and traditions of far-away lands. The books I crave now bring something unique and exciting to my table. 

Step Two - Once the book gets checked into the donate bin - it can never leave. I've been doing the purging in stages. I go through a book case - pull what I can part with and that very day those books (or kitchen items more on that later) leave my home. Once they are donated, I'm not looking back. A week later (before I pack the books because we are moving) I go through them again and somehow I find titles that I really don't need. They elluded me the first time - those tricky little suckers. Usually, I find a box or two more on the second run. 

Step Three - Do not surrender to giver's remorse. You were able to part with that book - you haven't cooked or thought about it in years - let someone else enjoy it. Look around you - see all those books on the shelves - the ones that bring you joy - embrace them - use Eat Your Books to cook new dishes from those titles and enjoy the space and freedom of being able to access the books that make you happy. 

Step Four - Imagine them being used by someone else. Another question, I am being asked is where to donate or sell the castoffs. Unless you have an autographed Julia Child cookbook or Leah Chase - you aren't going to get much for the books. I'd rather donate them to my library, area thrift stores or gift them to friends.  It's a tax deduction to donate, and I don't have to drag them into a Half Price Books and drag them back out. I pull up to the thrift store and young men (they are everywhere) gladly take my bins of books away. I envision them on the shelves of a new cook loving her thrift store finds. Another place I take some titles is the area Outreach or food bank - call first - they will put them out for folks who come to shop there. There are also local groups that sell items on Facebook - you can post books and other things there for sale or to give away (i.e., those magazines no one wants.)

This same process I've been doing with my kitchen items. My addiction to French cast iron enamel runs deep. A few months ago, I decided to share the love. Most of my red pieces went to a friend - she paid for shipping. A few pots went to other friends. It brings me great joy to make someone else happy and I can keep the pots I love - the White, Blue and Yellow and maybe other colors if they are a speciality pot - like the doufeu. I want to be able to use the books and kitchen gear I have and not have them use me.

I write the words "use me" because that is what some of the excess is doing. If I have to spend time looking for a book, looking for a pan, moving sheet pans out of the oven to bake - then those things are using me. If I don't have room on my kitchen counter to cook effectively, then those extra gadgets and utensils are eating away my time and creativity.

Freeing yourself from titles that are on a shelf or in a bin, because you one day may use it - will enable you to use the newest title from Ottolenghi or Diana Henry instead of having to dig around trying to remember where that book is hiding. When we move, I will have an office that will have wall-to-wall bookshelves, I will organize them by cuisine and finally make sure they are all entered into Eat Your Books. 

I will keep the promise to myself that for every new book I keep - an old title goes out. This is what is working for me and I hope some part of this inspires you to make your collection work for you. 

That being said - I still want a copy of Mouneh

I'd love to hear your thoughts on downsizing. 

Update: It took me twenty plus years to get to this point of being able to let go of things - and I only wish I had done it twenty years ago.

 

 

 

50 Comments

  • rchesser  on  5/26/2017 at 8:42 PM

    I hope I remember all your great advice when I decide to purge! I'm going to save this article to my important documents folder, thanks, Jenny.

  • FaithB  on  5/26/2017 at 8:46 PM

    FANTASTIC advice, especially "Don't open the book," which is always my fatal mistake. But I'm hoping I die without having to go through this agony, in which case my relatives can - and will - curse me!

  • lgroom  on  5/26/2017 at 8:52 PM

    You do have to be ruthless when purging a book collection of any kind. I just downsized and it was work, but good work and it is a joy to donate things and hope that someone else will find joy in your former treasures.

  • susankay  on  5/26/2017 at 8:56 PM

    I can handle parting with the magazines. Beyond that, I need a therapist to help me.

  • smartie101  on  5/26/2017 at 9:47 PM

    Please mail me your books!!!! I am incurable.

  • darcie_b  on  5/26/2017 at 9:51 PM

    I'm sitting here staring at some titles that should go. My collection isn't huge, but I totally get the "using me" part - my husband is a pack rat and I get anxiety just walking into the garage. I'm hoping my kitchen remodel will force me to become ruthless with the culling.

  • Jane  on  5/26/2017 at 10:51 PM

    I lost 140 books in my own basement flood last year. But I really need to purge more. My 600 or so "favorites" are in my kitchen/diner (floor to ceiling bookshelves) but the rest of my 1,800+ collection are in the basement. Do I use those books? Rarely - so why am I keeping them? I need to apply your rules Jenny.

  • TrishaCP  on  5/26/2017 at 10:56 PM

    Susankay- I am dying! 😂😂😂

  • tui  on  5/26/2017 at 11:21 PM

    I purged my cook book collection two years ago before moving house. I had to decide whether I was a cook book collector or a cook who liked to have plenty of books to turn to for recipe, ideas, menus, hints, etc. When I decided I was the latter it helped me get rid of a lot of books that I had never cooked anything from and never would. But the most important factor in whether a book stayed or went was whether it was indexed in Eat Your Books or not. If it wasn't, it had to be special to stay.

  • Lem9579  on  5/27/2017 at 6:28 AM

    I've purged based on how my eating has evolved through the years. Like you, I no longer use those 5 ingredient books. Sometimes it's hard though because a book might have sentimental value attached to it, for example, if my mom gave it to me. I need to work on that. I always take them to the thrift shop or if it's a brand new book that was a dud from day one and never used, I take it to the library.

  • vickster  on  5/27/2017 at 7:13 AM

    Do you buy Kindle cookbooks? If so, I am curious how you handle them. They are kind of out of control for me!

  • nancycg56  on  5/27/2017 at 7:29 AM

    Don't forget about Little Free libraries. I put one or two in mine every couple weeks and they go fast. I donate boxes full every few months. I'm getting ready for another purge myself.

  • IslandgirlOK  on  5/27/2017 at 8:03 AM

    I had to do this a few years ago, the price of moving. I honestly do not regret it. I don't miss a single one of the 500+ books I donated/gave away. You gotta do what you gotta do, and no sense letting it weigh you down.

  • Jenny  on  5/27/2017 at 8:28 AM

    Vickster - I am not a fan of Kindle books - I will buy a version if it is on sale for a bargain. I manage what I have on Kindle by not downloading it until I need it. Susankay - I'll be your therapist. :)

  • Sharmiro  on  5/27/2017 at 8:48 AM

    I love your criteria...for the last decade I have been culling books and paper and magazines, and have used a similar set. In 2010 I donate over 1000 paperbacks, keeping around 200...I haven't looked them since and they will go soon...lightening the load is a good exercise for the soul. It forces you to think about you, your desires, and the now, not the past. Good article.

  • camtncook  on  5/27/2017 at 11:11 AM

    I have begun the purging process. It's difficult, but I realize that I have keep a lot of books just so I could comment about how many I had. They go into those half-high wine case boxes I get at Costco. They are a perfect size for most of my collection.

  • camtncook  on  5/27/2017 at 11:22 AM

    I also buy Kindle books on sale if they are titles I've wanted for a while. I find it hard to cook from the Kindle, but i enjoy reading them. On rare occasions, I have turned around and bought a book based on how much I liked the Kindle version.

  • pumpkinspice  on  5/27/2017 at 11:29 AM

    I'm purging 50 a day until I reach my goal. I think I go into some sort of shock zone while I do it. My husband literally runs them to the SUV and drives away. LOL

  • PennyG  on  5/27/2017 at 12:53 PM

    I have three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that are stuffed! AND my great new cookbooks are stacked in my back room awaiting a place to be shelved. I really, really need to purge. I have 2-3 hours today (Saturday) before I need to get ready to go to a baseball game this evening. Your article has inspired me to finally get started on this quest. Thank You (and my husband really thanks you)!

  • anightowl  on  5/27/2017 at 12:54 PM

    Nancy, When I put cookbooks in my Little Free Library, they disappear faster than almost any other type of book. I have built-in bookshelves in my house (only 100 linear feet!), so I have to keep my books pared down on a consistent basis. When I have too many books double stacked, it's purge time. I walk them out to my library, and they disappear quickly, moving into a neighbor's home where they can be loved anew. :)

  • PennyG  on  5/27/2017 at 12:56 PM

    OH - and I think my first criteria of whether a book will stay or go is whether or not it is indexed here at EYB!

  • BethNH  on  5/27/2017 at 1:19 PM

    Excellent advice. I started purging my cookbooks during Lent this year. I do not have a huge collection but it seemed ludicrous to keep book that I knew I'd never use and really didn't care for. It's a great feeling to imagine that some other cook in some other kitchen may get use out of the same books I deemed useless.

  • PennyG  on  5/27/2017 at 3:25 PM

    It's about 2 1/2 hours after my post above and I've culled about 100 books from my shelves! I feel great! And, since most weren't indexed here at EYB, the percentage of books I'm keeping (for now) that are indexed has increased from about 60 to nearly 70 percent. WooHoo! JENNY, I really utilized your advice to NOT open the books. Now to reorganize my shelves ... (I know what I'm doing for the rest of this holiday weekend).

  • Jenny  on  5/27/2017 at 3:50 PM

    Yay! PeggyG - I just went through books I had packed to move them to the garage and got rid of another box! And I found out Goodwill will take nice magazines.

  • Therese  on  5/27/2017 at 5:11 PM

    The idea that things you have are 'using you' is powerful. I'm going to be mindful of that generally. I feel quite relaxed about my cookbook collection now, having read of the numbers you lot are dealing with 😅.

  • Vanessa  on  5/28/2017 at 7:04 AM

    Yesterday morning, I set out to purge my cookbook shelves. Such a nice surprise to open EYB to start removing books and see this post and all the comments! One idea that I found helpful when faced with a beautiful book that I had bought (or been given) but never use: just consider it like a library book that I'd "borrowed" for a while. Something that I'd read, enjoyed, and now needed to return to circulation. The result: I took 76 to the Friends of the Library yesterday. And got up this morning and pulled 8 more off the shelves!

  • Jenny  on  5/28/2017 at 8:58 AM

    I love reading all your comments. I too went through the books I had packed for the move - and on the third pass - found another box full. I by no means am giving up my collection - I will end up with about 1500 down from 4000 - but those 1500 will be used and loved. Keep up the good work my friends.

  • heyjude  on  5/28/2017 at 1:31 PM

    I am at the point of having to remove one book for every book I add. This has forced me to make some hard choices. The goal is to have no more than one or two cookbooks on tables, chairs or bedside. The piles on the floor are all gone at husband's request. I think the best advice is to not revisit them once the decision is made. I'm not looking at collectibles yet. At least 7 totes have gone to the FOL already. I'll be busy today and tomorrow because several new books are expected this week.

  • ballen  on  5/28/2017 at 2:22 PM

    I have a collection of 1300+ that needs to be cut by about half as I get ready to consolidate books from two houses down to one so I can identify with the comments above. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a feature within EYB for us to swap, sell, and/or donate cookbooks within the EYB membership where we know they'd be appreciated and put to good use? Does anyone know if this concept might be considered as an EYB enhancement for the future? Something as simple as a message board where members could post titles they no longer want or ones they're looking to add to their collections. Just an idea ...

  • Jenny  on  5/28/2017 at 3:54 PM

    Ballen - we have tried that before in The Cookbook Book Junkies and it turns into a nightmare of epic proportions - I even did a cookbook swap/cookie cutter swap one time at the holidays -- same thing - it would take countless hours to police --- look on Facebook there are cookbook swap groups.

  • PennyG  on  5/29/2017 at 7:56 AM

    After about 8 hours of work over 2 days, my cookbook shelves are now nicely organized by topic (with some room to grow). What had happened the past few years is when I brought in a new book, I just had to shelve it where it would fit, rather than where it made sense. And lately, they just would not fit any more so got stacked in my back room. I will haul over a hundred today to Half Price Books - and perhaps reward myself by taking advantage of their 20% off sale! I know I won't get much for them (done this before with other books) but I need them gone - they are stacked on my dining room table! Thanks again, Jenny, for the inspiration.

  • pumpkinspice  on  5/29/2017 at 9:50 AM

    I find I'm gaining momentum as I continue to pare down my collection. I've parted with over 800 books. A woman at the thrift store we donate to is so appreciative. She runs to grab whatever we bring in and tells us how quickly our books and kitchenware sells. This makes us feel like our donations are going to happy homes and benefitting the charity.

  • Christine  on  5/30/2017 at 9:45 AM

    My EYB shelf currently stands at 346 cookbooks and I feel like I need a good culling too. Whether or not a book is indexed definitely a consideration, however, I've parted with some indexed books (even ones I member-indexed myself!) when I realize that despite the fact they are indexed, they never come up in my searches! So I've started to think of the index status as not an automatic reason to keep a book, but rather a tool to help me make a better decision. With a toddler, I know my cooking has changed and will continue to change over the years and I try to remember that when culling -- the desperate, quick & easy cooking won't be necessary forever! But it's made me more realistic even when taking a good hard look at some of those more complex books. Would I even WANT to cook out of this book if I had the time? That question is getting easier and easier for me to answer these days. While my cookbook collection may seem on the smaller side for EYB, my "regular" book collection is busting from the shelves! I did a big culling last year...but I've filled the shelves back up as I focus more on children's books (for both my son and myself, if I am perfectly honest!) I don't feel guilty in general about having a lot of books, because I think they are valuable and important -- for children and adults. But when things get disorganized and overflowing I know it's time to share the wealth and pass some on. I won't be dedicating a huge chunk of time to it anytime soon, but I like having a bag or box and adding to it bit by bit until I have enough to donate, trade-in, or sell -- wherever the best fit seems to be for the ones I've set aside.

  • annmartina  on  5/31/2017 at 9:03 AM

    I'm so glad to see that someone else let go of Joy of Cooking. I have had a copy for 34 years and I've never bonded with it. I've always wondered if I was missing something. Now . . . what to do about the other 1000 or so books I have to go through.

  • ChefTamiMitchell  on  5/31/2017 at 9:39 AM

    I regularly purge and donate to the library, give to friends, or sell on Amazon. My interests and tastes change over the years, as does the style and photography in books. All of the crazy 90's diet books - GONE. As a personal chef, I had a lot of odd diet and single focus books that no longer work for me. I'm due for another purge soon, but outdoor activities take precedent right now.

  • Maddog16  on  5/31/2017 at 11:41 AM

    I did my big purge last year after I retired. Went though the whole house to include boxes of cookbooks and other books that were stored all over the house. Now they are all organized in one room...what I am calling "my room" I now have all my cookbooks set up by either regions or type (such as sourdough bread making). I have empty spaces in my kitchen cabinets...and I am also practicing if something new comes in, something old goes out. I love not being control by out of control stuff. Now if I could just convince my husband to do some purging of the garage!

  • DKennedy  on  6/1/2017 at 9:20 AM

    Thank you fro the inspirational op-ed piece. Personally, I do a virtual purge for my first go round. I create an EYB bookmark of books I am thinking of purging. I check back in after 6 months or so and if I haven't touched the books since they were so bookmarked, out they go into the garage. Once a year I host a tea and offer up the cast offs to my guests.

  • saladdays  on  6/2/2017 at 12:07 PM

    Hmm, I have been thinking about a purge for some time. I have some books I don't think I have ever used and a lot that haven't been opened for quite some years. Cooking styles and ingredients have changed so much over the years and my cooking has a much lighter and fresher feel these days. When I started out it was almost impossible to buy fresh herbs and far more came out of packets and tins. I have some rather earnest wholefood books from the 70s that ought to go, 'Moosewood' is a classic but many aren't! My kitchen bookshelf has deep shelves and some are double stacked. I have recently purged our study of old university textbooks and felt much better so I think cookbooks are next!

  • betsyp  on  6/6/2017 at 4:17 PM

    Perfect timing! Yesterday I felt inspired and filled two bags of cookbooks that I haven't opened in years and carted them over to the library for their book sale. I have a way to go. My collection no longer fits on the shelves, overflowing to the floor, as well as double-stacked. Very inspirational! Opening the book is the killer, I agree!

  • MangerTout  on  6/11/2017 at 7:08 AM

    I remember moving and the only box of cookbooks I could find at first was one that contained books that had been created by various ladies groups. Some of them belonged to my husband's grandmother! It was quite interesting to go through them. I found a few things I had not seen for many years. I made a few of them before I found a box of cookbooks I more currently used. I am aided and abetted in my cookbook addiction by my husband who likes to think he will get to eat from the inspiration. Truth to tell that my job takes up way too much of my time and looking at cookbooks provides comic relief but little real action. Not enough energy to actually cook as much as I would like. I hang on to the cookbooks hoping for more time in retirement. If I move, I will purge. It would be so embarrassing to have the mover's move all of these!

  • jahqdruh  on  6/18/2017 at 2:30 PM

    I have been culling the collection through an "audition" process. I pick a cookbook and select 5 or 6 dishes to cook out of it. If I can't even find 5 or 6 I want to cook -- out it goes. If there are too many recipes that I say, "I can't ever cook that" due to food dislikes/aversions -- out it goes. If the recipes I do cook aren't ones I would consider making again -- buh-bye. I've been doing this process for a year, and have gotten rid of 50-75 cookbooks. Those that have been tested and stayed have earned their place on the shelves. This process has actually been fun.

  • manycookbooks  on  6/19/2017 at 3:05 PM

    Oh my goodness...purging cookbooks? It makes me cringe. There are lots of other books in my household I could easily do without, but cookbooks? They are an incredible source of history of cooking, food trends and fads, social and cultural history, and so much more, in addition to recipes. Much of the joy I have in my collection are for these reasons, although I also love to cook and actually read and use them regularly. I have some that don't get touched often, but I seldom use the same one over and over. I tend to collect older, out-of-print or otherwise "unusual" cookbooks such as "Feed the Brute (1925) and the like, which is a fascinating history of English cookery and the role of women/men (The author, Marjorie Swift, indicates at the beginning of the book...."A well-fed man is a well-managed one" (have to agree!) I am anticipating a donation of some books from a local "purger", which should push my collection to just over 6,000. I am, however, discriminating and don't just take any cookbook willy-nilly. You won't find "Pillsbury" cookbooklets from the supermarket or diet trend cookbooks and the like in my collection. People have accused me of "hoarding", but unlike the people on "Hoarders" TV show, I don't collect for the sake of collecting. Here's to cookbooks!

  • RaySadler  on  6/21/2017 at 1:21 PM

    Manycookbooks - 6000+? You give me a reason for going on! Seriously though, Jenny is a strong-willed example to all of us, but I cannot bear the thought that if I give my surplus to a charity shop, they will just pulp them if they don't move. As far as I know, libraries and schools are not willing/able to accept books her in the UK; Oxfam is the one organization that does seem to have a constructive resale program; several of mine have come from them over the years, but they are in a pedestrian only zone in Canterbury, 30 odd miles away.

  • ToscasKiss  on  6/29/2017 at 2:38 PM

    6,000 + books? I am not anywhere near that many, so I don't feel so bad about my collection, which I am not ready to purge. Regarding the food magazines, I sat down one summer (I had a broken kneecap, so I wasn't going anywhere) and clipped the recipes I really wanted. I then organized them into categories and further separated them into sub-categories; they were then deposited into folders. I've gotten in the habit of doing this every month or two which helps cut down on the magazine clutter.

  • EmilyR  on  6/29/2017 at 4:38 PM

    I don't know why, but this post gave me some solstice in knowing there are so many kindred spirits out there. I love everything that food and cooking represents and coupled with books just makes it that much better.

  • susan g  on  6/30/2017 at 9:29 AM

    You had me at Rule #1! I've been trying to reduce mine, but oops! make myself the victim of not following Rule #2. I'll have to try the above suggestion of "select 5 or 6 dishes to cook" to assuage my conscience - and see if I can get some return on investment before giving up the book. What I don't hear from anyone is that the access of recipes on the internet, or ebooks, has moved them away from physical books. Yes to real books!

  • Rella  on  6/30/2017 at 5:00 PM

    Tastes do change! One time I culled about 350 cookbooks, but did keep pics of what went to the local library. I decided I didn't want to cook any more Thai cuisine, so all the Thai cookbooks went out. You would think I would have kept one of the best. Now and then I look at those books and wish I had them; but now, I wish I had given all the Chinese away instead. I wonder how long it would take me to regret giving away Chinese books if I chose to do so now as I know longer cook Chinese. Yes, I'm back to enjoying Thai again, but not enough to start buying Thai books again. I just don't trust my fickleness. No matter, I'm on to Mediterranean and Middle East. This, too, may past.

  • ohjodi  on  6/30/2017 at 11:09 PM

    If you find yourself missing a cookbook you gave away, remember that you might be able to have your library find it for you, and you could also just buy it again used. I recently donated an entire trunk load of books, half were cookbooks. It felt great! But I have a long, long way to go, LOL I want to reduce to just my two 6' x 3' book cases. One for cookbooks, one for all others. My closets are filled with books right now. It's crazy.

  • KLeverett  on  7/3/2017 at 2:29 PM

    Your article was spot-on, Jenny and I am so impressed with what you have done. Although my collection is very small compared to most (250+/-) I really did feel compelled to cull having read your piece. Rule #1 was key for me! I put 25 books in boxes one day last week and took them to my library Friends warehouse that same day, so as not to have time to reconsider. I was thrilled when the warehouse manager told me I had some "fine items there!". He knew they were good books and would sell. I moved last year and downsized by ridding myself of many, many of my possessions but I didn't purge the cookbooks. Now that I am settled, I find I really love being more spare and unencumbered by my possessions and so culling the cookbooks begins. I like that I can now feel okay about putting a few new issues on my shelves with no remorse! Gracias!

  • sarahj22  on  7/22/2017 at 12:15 AM

    I always feel a bit guilty about having too many cookbooks (just under 200) but I realise now my collection is tiny compared to many other members! I've had great success culling my regular books and clothes using KonMari but I can't bring myself to do it with cookbooks (though I have given some to charity if the recipes seem too generic or I've found that more than a couple of them really don't work). One thing I did take from the book's ideas and from another EYB article is that I've reorganised my cookbooks by colour. It gets some laughs from guests but the rainbow shelves look much prettier than my previous system of ordering by cuisine. Plus, strangely, it's now much easier to find a book I'm looking for as I always seem to remember the colour of the spine. Luckily I have shelves to fit all my cookbooks but I'll probably need to adopt a one-in, one-out policy soon for new purchases to avoid them taking over. I completely sympathise with those culling excessive amounts in boxes - as Marie Kondo says those unread and unused books don't make us happy and as soon as I'd downsized my regular books it lifted a massive weight from my mind. Well done to all the cookbook junkies who have succeeded in culling their collections!

Post a comment

You may only comment on the blog if you are signed in. Sign In

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!

Archives