It Came From the Library: Something about Cookbooks

by in News, November 23rd, 2009

For this librarian’s money the must-read article of last week was Adam Gopnik‘s brilliant, lyrical meditation on the pull of cookbooks and what they teach us about desire and disappointment. Though Gopnik at times risks overburdening the cookbook with significance (“Anyone who cooks knows that it is in following recipes that one first learns the anticlimax of the actual, the perpetual disappointment of the thing achieved.”), his essay got me thinking about why it is that this deep into the digital age, with old media fast collapsing around it, with the proliferation of blogs and unending flows of free content/recipes/instruction, the cookbook — the kind you can touch and stain and dogear and shelve, the object -- endures, a bright (i.e. profitable) spot in the beleaguered world of book publishing. And it seems to me that cookbooks have held up so well because as books go there is something fundamentally different about a cookbook. It’s an obvious point, but it’s not simply that a cookbook is also a sort of manual, a tool (plenty of self-help guides fit that description), or that a high percentage of cookbooks are purchased as gifts (it’s tough to wrap a bow around an e-book).

The difference, I think, is not in the uses the cookbook is put to; it runs deeper and relates to how a cookbook is, or rather is not, read. Because in a way we don’t read cookbooks so much as we reread cookbooks. Unlike other forms of printed matter, we return to cookbooks again and again. And in the process a relationship forms, an intimacy results. We need cookbooks on our shelves because their presence matters, because their materiality is a form of companionship, and because nothing the digital age has come up with confers presence, offers a person something they can form an attachment to. Respected newspapers my close, beloved magazines may shut down, but cookbooks, I suspect, won’t be going away any time soon.

Jonathan Milder, Research Librarian

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