A few weeks ago I was invited to a bridal shower, and by the time I got around to looking up the registry almost everything had already been fulfilled. I don't love registries anyway, and because I'm a librarian I figured I can always get away with giving people books for any and every occasion. Right? I thought a nice cookbook would be the perfect gift, and then remembered I had already done this a few years ago, giving another friend an aphrodisiac cookbook for her bridal shower. I was so proud of myself, because usually showers beget either sexy gifts like lingerie, or practical gifts like food processors. I had thought of a gift that was both sexy and practical! Well, perhaps aphrodisiac cookbooks are not the most practical. But in general, a cookbook can be very useful indeed.
Wandering around the bookstore, I saw plenty of cutesy cookbooks for newlyweds, but considering the couple, none of them were quite right. I kept coming back to The Joy of Cooking, which my mother has convinced me is the only cookbook anyone actually needs, despite my own entire aversion to cooking. Inspiration struck, and I decided to pair it with The Joy of Sex. Absurd gender stereotypes about wifely duties aside, I have to say I thought it was a fab shower gift -- original and funny and useful. I had a feeling the bride-to-be, an English teacher, wouldn't mind me ignoring her registry to help her begin to build an at home reference collection. In fact, after a terrible incident with one of her other shower gifts (a slicer) resulting in a trip to the ER and 16 stitches, I'm glad to know I gave her a gift that probably won't injure her (although The Joy of Cooking is huge and heavy and is probably best kept on a low shelf for safety's sake.)
After all this, I got to thinking about at-home reference collections. At some point during my bazillion years of higher education (still ongoing), I got rid of the paperback dictionary and thesaurus I had when I first went off to college. It just became easier to look it up online, and I never used them. In spite of the fantastic reference powers of the Internet, there are some books I keep and use the old-fashioned way. Without really meaning to, I've created a small collection which constitutes my own personal Best of Reference. Next to me on a shelf as I write this is The St. Martin's Handbook, which I keep around to make me feel better about my writing, mostly. (If you are reading this post, you probably can guess how often I actually consult it.) As previously mentioned, I don't cook much. Even so, I have quite a few cookbooks at home, and regularly consult the Cooks Illustrated genius masterpiece Baking Illustrated, as well as this great little book called What's A Cook To Do that explains how to do pretty much everything you could ever need or want to do in the kitchen. On my last trip home, my mom decided I should have her vintage (1976!) Mr. Boston Deluxe Official Bartender's Guide, which has not yet been used but looks very cute on the shelf next to the oft-used Not For Tourists Guide to NYC.
I've moved 11 times in the past 10 years, and it's amazing that I have any reference books at home at all, given the constant weeding of my home library every time I pack up for a new place! Some of my favorite "reference" books have been given to me as gifts, and so they've been moved a few times even though I don't consult them all that often... reference with sentimental value or something like that. Among these, a huge but fascinating encyclopedia called The Secret Universe of Names, Jon Stewart's America: The Book, a practical guide to sorcery (also not yet used but you never know!) called The Good Spell Book, and Suze Orman's exceedingly helpful and simultaneously quite depressing Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke. The most recent addition to my at-home reference collection is a tag-sale copy of Living it Up, a guide to named apartment houses in New York, and my most treasured reference book gift is a copy of How to Use the Library from 1955.
I still have a few weeks to figure out what to give the happy couple for an official wedding gift, and most likely will resist the urge to buy more books. But just in case, I did an informal survey of my social networks to see what reference books they hold on to and continue to regularly use instead of searching the Internet. A few of the responses:
The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary (the most votes by far!)
The Dictionary of Classical Mythology
Old Encyclopædia Brittanica
the local phone book
The Complete Photo Guide to Crochet
Scott Kelby's Digital Photographer series
The Elements of Style
The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook
Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living
Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
Emily Post's Etiquette
And of course, The Joy of Cooking also received quite a few votes. One of my colleagues told me his most used reference book at home is an old family cookbook that opens automatically to certain recipes his family makes over and over. I most sincerely hope some of the cookbooks and other books I've given as gifts are used and loved like that in years to come. What are your most used (or sentimentally valued!) reference books at home?