Cookbook overload

When my friend and neighbor Naomi Fiss came over to shoot my cookbooks for an article in Edible San Francisco close to two years ago, she had plenty of material to choose from (including this lovely shot she did of a set of Time Life cookbooks I assembled over years of buying one here and one there from thrift stores and used book dealers). Years ago my dashing husband moved a stack of four book shelves into the kitchen. We both figured that was where my cookbooks would go.

And they did. But I’m not sure what happens when I’m not in the room. Are they breeding? Cloning themselves? Signing for packages of their brethren?

So those shelves are what can only be described as full – with books stacked on top of the rows of books and books jammed in between the shelves. More books tend to be stacked on my desk, awaiting review over at Local Foods. Then there are the multiple shelves of food reference books that fill the bookcases in my study, most in double rows. And, I am ashamed to say, there is plenty of overrun filling more than one shelf in the basement.

The thing that gets me down is that I in no way keep every cookbook that comes my way. Review copies that don’t work to feature on Local Foods get sent straight to the box in the garage to be given away or traded. I exhibit self-control in purposeful acquisition, too: I once brought four boxes of cookbooks to a cookbook exchange and managed to bring exactly zero home. Once something has entered the collection, however, deciding to get rid of it becomes complicated. Is the standard whether I ever use it? Whether I think I might use it? Whether it is important or interesting in the food writing world? If a friend wrote it? If it was a gift?

As a friend put it recently when talking about her substantial collection of novels: I could just decide to get rid of all of them, but to pick and choose seems impossible. That’s why I no longer have any wine books. I got rid of all of them in one fell swoop.

To be realistic I am not going to be getting rid of all my cookbooks and yet I do want to pick and choose to reduce their mass.

I tried coming up with a system based on the one I use for clothes: Do I wear it? Does it fit? Does it look good? I need a triple-yes to keep something. But what are the equivalent questions for cookbooks?

Darling readers, can you help? Can anyone offer up a rubric to use to cull a book collection? It need not be cookbook-specific – in fact, I’d love to be able to apply it to other areas of our family’s bibliophilia, so general is good.