The Cook Shelf: why owning the book still matters

I bought delicious magazine at the weekend; I always find interesting recipes in there and, as ever, it didn’t disappoint. It also had an offer, on one of those ‘what’s going on’ round-up type pages, for the ‘ultimate recipe search’. A new website, called Eat Your Books, it said, allows users, to ‘search their whole cookbook library in an instant, by ingredient, diet or occasion’ (I’m quoting the whole sentence for a reason). This text was next to a tempting photo of several cookery books and, all excited, I suddenly had a vision of a place that had bought, or was in the process of buying all the cookbooks in the world. They’d obviously got round that small niggle of copyright by agreeing a deal on subscription fees with publishers. I was impressed and thrilled at the prospect of getting my hands on lots of recipes that I am currently fantasising about for a very small fee or, by using the six-month delicious offer, for no fee at all. Peter Gordon’s Cook at Home, Culinaria Espana and Economy Gastronomy were all within reach.

Alas, however, I had misunderstood the meaning of ‘their’. When I feverishly subscribed to the website and ticked the books I wanted to put on ‘my’ bookshelf, I noticed that it seemed to suggest that I should only include books that I own. That seemed a bit pointless and, since it’s on the web, I asked myself ‘how will they know?’ and carried on.

Well, it doesn’t matter if they know or not because the site doesn’t contain any recipes; it simply works to help you find/index the recipes you already own (in cook books or magazines) and, if that book is on their database (neither Peter Gordon nor Culinaria is) then it gives you a shopping list for the recipe. So instead of just going to the book and finding out how to make it, this site adds another and, in my opinion, completely unnecessary step: go to the website, search the contents of the books you already own for a recipe that you want and then go back to the book in question to find out how to make it. The person who set it up points out that she owns 700 cook books and can never find anything; hence she decided to put everything into an easy online database. Not the recipes, of course, since copyright prevents her doing that, just their location and ingredients.

Now, if you have 700 cook books, I can see that this might be necessary but, even though I have 70 or so, the joy of owning them is that I can browse through them and stumble across something unexpected. If I know what I want I go to the specific page by using the book index, or search on the net for the information. To the publishing world that net of information is always seen, mostly correctly, as a threat to its existence. But this example has reminded me why books, for now, continue to offer something different. Yes, if I know what I want and if what I want is information, then the Internet is often the best place to find it. Yet if I want inspiration, the book still can’t be beaten. What’s weird about Eat Your Books is that, as it’s currently set up, it can provide neither. Defeated by a sense of pointlessness, having spent a good fifteen minutes thinking ‘that can’t be it…can it?’, I gave up and went back to my bookshelves…

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