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The Joy of Reference


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? 


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A Fantastic New Voice

I loved this blog and it rang true. So many are pretentious and intentionally dense. This was fun to read and I did not miss the jaded self-import of other blogs. Keep it up and keep it real.

love the blog too!

Hi Jenny, this was really fun to think about. Cookbooks and local history books are most frequent among my personal reference books. And like you, I have had to pare down my books every time I move. Your shower gifts were very inspired and original. Btw, I would love to see scanned pages from How to Use the Library if you can do it and aren't infringing on any copyright.

How to Use the Library

Hi Ursula, How to Use the Library is still in copyright, but we are going to see about contacting the publisher about reproducing it. Thanks for the suggestion -- it's a great little book worth sharing!

Bringing sexy back to reference!

I never did respond when you asked, because I don't actually frequently consult "referencey" books; I do usually just look it up online. Closest would be the 2 NYC guidebooks we own and loan out to visiting family and friends on the regular.

Looking it up

I guess if you have your computer logged in to the internet 24 hours a day, and you know which sites are reliable, and which are trash, there is nothing wrong with looking things up online. When I am reading a book (paper, needless to say), however, and find an unfamiliar word, I just reach over to the shelf and pull down the dictionary. No need to log in. Of course, I admit to a certain sickness -- I am an ex-reference librarian. I have used computers since before the World Wide Web (mid-1980s), and am very comfortable doings so. But, what do I use most often at home? Dictionaries (several), World Almanac (how old is Jane Krakowski?), dictionaries of quotations ("one woe follows on the heel of another" or what was it?), Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (what's a "tanner"?), Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, and more. But then I only log on when I have the need. Checking e-mail or Facebook. Watching old episodes of 30 Rock or Jon Stewart. My computer isn't on 24/7, so ...

The Joy of Reference

Jenny, I love this post, I can relate to it. I have a book of Quotations from a gazillion years ago, and I won't get rid of it, either. Cheers.

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