Creating a Master Index for a Cookbook Collection

January 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

A dream of mine has come true. I’ve finally found a practical way to index my massive cookbook collection! I’m about 2/3 done, and only today did it occur to me that others might be interested in a project like this. (Humor me, okay?)

Up to now, I have had to rely on memory when I’ve wanted to look up a specific recipe. What book was it in again? This might not seem like a big deal in an ordinary kitchen. Combine 7 shelves in two bookcases with weekly dinner parties involving up to 20 people, and you can see why I wanted to get more organized.

I do have a sort of system in place for tracking recipes I have tried. I use one of four symbols to mark the page afterward. A recipe gets a check mark as a sign I’ve made it. It gets an X if I wouldn’t make it again. A star means it was good enough to make again, and a circled star means it should be in regular rotation. This system has helped a lot when I’m trying to recall which cornbread.

This still didn’t help with the problem of remembering which cookbook a recipe was in. It also didn’t provide a quick way to find our favorites. I tried using a blank book to write a few names, but I found this cumbersome. No way to alphabetize as I went, no search feature, no tags, etc.

I tried setting up a spreadsheet and typing in lists of recipe names, with columns for different ingredients. After about two hours I could see that this would take the rest of my life, with the added drawback that our computer is on the other side of the house from the kitchen.

Enter EverNote. I had made indexing my cookbooks a New Year’s goal, and I started searching for ways other people had done this. I stumbled across the fact that EverNote has OCR features. I thought, “It can’t be that simple, can it?” I loaded the app onto my iPhone (again – I had tried it and been unimpressed) and tested it out. Yes, it is that simple!

What I am doing is scanning each page of the index for each cookbook. I rename the ‘snapshot’ with the book’s name and the index page number. I put it in a folder marked ‘Recipe Indices.’ I tag it with the book’s name, author names, and publication date. It sounds complicated, but once I got going I found I could tag everything in seconds.

Now, when I search for a term, EverNote returns all the pages with that word, with each instance highlighted in yellow. The other night I wanted to make a cassoulet recipe I first tried 18 months ago. Even though I was only halfway through indexing, the correct book came up in seconds. That’s part of why I haven’t bothered creating tags for recipe categories like ‘Thai’ or ‘soup’ – I figure those terms will have been indexed already.

The other thing I’m doing is scanning all those recipes with a star, as I come across them. EverNote also uses a star to mark favorites. So far I have 50. It’s like a mini travel cookbook. I no longer have to worry about wandering the grocery store wondering what to cook. If I feel a sudden craving, I can check the recipe and make sure I have all the ingredients in the cart. One day I’m sure my phone will also have a complete inventory of what’s in my pantry, too, so I quit overbuying. I have so much molasses right now the ATF is investigating me as a bootlegger. But I digress.

EverNote has two additional features I haven’t used yet: web clipping and handwriting recognition. When I’m done with the current phase of my project, I can find out if my handwriting is legible on my collection of recipe cards. (Yep. Books are only part of my hoard). As I move to a more electronic system, I can add recipes I’ve discovered online.

Possibly the most interesting finding has been that I had never used 40% of the cookbooks on my shelf. I didn’t count how many more had only one recipe checked off; I’m afraid that would have been too revealing. I went through and rigorously culled books I was sure I could let go. One guideline that helped was to cut off anything more than 10 years old, although I made the exception of a few reliable restaurant cookbooks I use regularly. Another, easier guideline was to flip through books I recalled harboring a failed recipe or two. I started with 128 and now I’m down to 82, including my handwritten recipe journal.

Why not just buy the e-book versions of my favorite cookbooks? Believe me, I wish this was a viable option. Not all of them are available in electronic format. Each recipe in an e-book spreads across multiple screens. There is no way I know of to search multiple indices at once. It might be easier to use e-cookbooks on a tablet, and I’ll find out once I get one, but for now I like my system better.

If you have a system for organizing your recipes, or ideas for using EverNote to improve my project, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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Not Currently Available

August 1, 2012 at 2:25 am | Posted in Book Blather | Leave a comment

It’s Booker time once again and I am trying to get my books. I ordered four from Powell’s using my accumulated store credit.

None of the remaining eight are available in the US yet.

Since I prefer digital books anyway, I thought I would buy them in Kindle format and read them on my phone. Alas, while they are all listed on Amazon, none of them are “currently available.” Thwarted!

This raises a few questions. Are the authors served by this arrangement? Is the consumer served? (No!) How long will this state of affairs last as more and more books are sold electronically?

It appears possible to circumvent the problem by somehow changing the location on my phone so the website thinks I am British. This sounds not only beyond my technological expertise but also a way to somehow get in trouble down the road. So I’ll resort to what I did last year, and order them directly from the UK Amazon. It’s not against the law or anything. Although probably not for lack of trying.

Reading Coincidences

January 18, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Nonfiction | 7 Comments

Have you ever picked up a book, not knowing at the time that it would be much more relevant to you than you expected?

I started reading Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop after it had sat in my stack of library books for about two months.  When I requested it,  I just wanted to read the author’s long-awaited follow-up to Godel, Escher, Bach.  Today, I discovered that he is a long distance runner.  (Why is it that the smartest, highest achieving people always seem to be so good at so many things?)

My regular readers may recall that I set out to read 500 books in 2009.  I did it, of course, but I also got out of shape and put some weight on.  Last year I dropped 15 pounds.  Last month, I suddenly discovered the power of the hula hoop.  It rapidly became an obsession – I swear I am not making this up – until I was doing it an hour a day.  For some strange reason that I can’t fully recall, I decided to take up running as my new fitness plan.  The first day out, I literally could not run around the block, and it took over two weeks before I could run a full mile.

Now I have this new passion, and lo and behold, this book speaks to it in ways I never would have guessed.

I can’t help but wonder whether, if I had read the book any sooner, I would have glossed over the running analogies, or whether they might even have repelled me enough that the impulse would not have taken over my life the way it suddenly has.  (As I run on, my sentences do too).

Readers, weigh in.  Has a book ever spoken to you in a way that made it seem written especially for you?

Book Bum

May 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Walking up the street, I saw one of San Francisco’s many street people.  He was sitting on the sidewalk, on some bedding, with a “fishing pole” hanging out.  (A stick with a plastic cup hanging from a string, with a clever saying written on it, for the purpose of panhandling).  And do you know what he was doing?

He was reading A Reliable Wife!

Later, I went for a sandwich, and a man came in carrying a little boy of about three years old.  He was singing the alphabet song.  He finished, “double, u, x, and t…”

E-Books and Informal Book Shares

April 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

I read yet another article about how e-books are going to ruin everything, everywhere, and I thought I would hack it up for you. This time, the threat is to small, informal lending libraries, such as the book exchange that may exist in your office breakroom. Because e-books can’t be traded, sold, or inherited, it’s obvious that every old paperback in the world will suddenly evaporate.

That’s my first point. There are millions upon millions of books currently out there in the world, and they ain’t going anywhere. Have you taken a look at a small paperback trade collection lately? There were several at my last job, and they were chock-full of 1980′s mass market paperbacks. So, okay, maybe these collections aren’t going to be refreshed by many newer books in future – frankly it doesn’t look like they are right now. The main point, though, is that the advent of e-books does not mean storm troopers are going to run around town with a wheelbarrow, collecting and burning everyone’s old books.

Second, look. Not everyone is going to get an e-reader. It’s never going to happen. I think the people most worried about the threat of e-books are hyper-literate and overeducated, and we forget there are other categories of readers out there. My parents and my grandma are going to serve as examples here. All three are voracious readers of genre fiction. All three of them trade and share books. And all three read almost exclusively mass market paperbacks. The reason is that they prefer the format. Some people who read hundreds of books a year are never, ever going to switch to e-readers out of simple aesthetic preference. There will most likely be a market for grocery store paperbacks as long as a tree still stands.

Let’s talk about public libraries and e-books. In another window I am reading a book checked out from the San Francisco library using Adobe Digital Editions. It’s rad! The only issue I have with checking out these e-books in PDA is that you can’t check them back in when you’re done – you have to wait the designated time period. [Actually I discovered how to check books back in the morning after I wrote this]. Well, there is a second issue: you can only have five at a time, and that can be frustrating too. Many people seem to think that e-books will kill the public library, but I don’t see how.

One type of informal lending library mentioned in the LibraryThing article is that of hard-to-find books on alternative topics such as midwifery. This made me laugh. The audience for these alternative books is likely to be extremely protective of this sort of resource, and adamantly opposed to switching to e-books. I highly doubt the Reiki masters and naturopaths of the world are suddenly going to stop collecting and sharing reference materials. Even more do I doubt that the independent publishers of these works are suddenly going to switch to e-books and abandon print, not in the next decade anyway.

Let’s say The Worst happens and suddenly every literate person in the world switches to an e-reader, one of several competing brands that each have exclusively formatted books unavailable on the other brands. Does that somehow prevent sharing? Believe it or not, a Kindle owner let me take her device home and use it. If you and I each have our own e-reader, and we switch for a week, who’s to know? Unless they manage to build in a retina scanner that determines the device is being read by an unauthorized user and shoots him with a laser, I think we’re still free to do whatever we want in our homes. What’s weirder, we could even gather around and read aloud. We do that nearly every night at my house.

A year or so ago, I checked out statistics on e-book sales. The math showed that e-books are currently less than a hundredth of one percent of all book sales. To me the fact that people are still hyperventilating over e-books is profoundly silly. It’s a little unfair, too, to insist that trees die to make books and that the author should receive only a couple bucks per copy that may be read by 20 people. In the end, it’s also possible that there are a lot of books out there that don’t need to be published by the million, or at all really. Okay, e-books are here, and they may indeed take over, but it may take even longer than it should.

I Didn’t Like It

April 26, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Something has been on my mind a lot lately, and when I read this particular quote I sat straight up and wrote it down.  Douglas Wolk says, in his quite readable Reading Comics:

But any reason people don’t like something is a valid reason.

Is that true, do you think?

I wonder whether Wolk thinks the reverse is also true.  He suggests that criticism should be “brutal” and “harsh,” at least in the sense of maturing comics/graphic narrative as a medium.  On the other hand, he also admits to enjoying some stuff he considers less worthy of critical praise.  It suggests a sort of Quality Quadrant:

(I stole the quadrant diagram idea from Stephen Covey).

In the culinary world, I will provide my own examples.  Quadrant I: kale.  Quadrant II: zucchini. (Well, I’ll eat it but I sure don’t salivate over it). Quadrant III: Oreos.  Quadrant IV: marshmallows.  Now, in the literary world: I: The Brothers Karamazov. II: The Mill on the Floss.  III: self-help books. IV: genre fiction involving paramilitary organizations.

I read the quote claiming that any reason we don’t like something is valid to my husband.  He replied, facetiously, at his sardonic best, “I don’t like Jews.”  Clearly we can only apply this aesthetic standard to creative works!  (Although I guess Wolk did say “something” and not “someone.”)  It would be an absolute disaster in the political sphere, as in fact we have seen throughout world history.  It’s not very nice on the interpersonal level, either.

Anyway, in the literary world at least, I can think of a list of stupid reasons not to like something that I don’t think are valid at all.

  • I was put off by the cover art (over which the author has no say).
  • I wasn’t paying that much attention so I didn’t “get” some parts.
  • I was reading something else around that time and the styles didn’t play together well.
  • I heard something about the author’s personal life that bothered me.
  • I didn’t like another book by this author.  (Well, maybe…)
  • The audio version wasn’t well produced.
  • It won an award that I think should have gone to a different book.
  • It was recommended by someone I don’t like.
  • (Corollary: It was on Oprah).
  • I didn’t like the protagonist.  (Often we aren’t supposed to!)

We could probably go on from there, but I think I’ve made my point.  Saying “I didn’t like it” and being satisfied with that is just a bit… spoiled, don’t you think?  Just the other night I watched my friend’s kids eat only the noodles out of their soup, which is to be expected from preschoolers but not from adults.  On the other hand, I feel the same about people rejecting opera as I do about people not eating their vegetables, so I’m probably a big snob.

Ultimately, writing something off with a knee-jerk reaction only hurts ourselves.  When we refuse to make an attempt to appreciate something, we miss finding out it might have been our new favorite.  We limit our potential enjoyment and, what’s worse, we often spread it to others.

It Pays Off

April 20, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 6 Comments

Book espionage, that’s what I call it.  I have multiple sources that give me the information I need.  Though I didn’t have the Pulitzer announcements on my calendar this year, it turned out I’d already read the fiction winner, for the first time ever.  I set out to make sure I was spending my reading time on the best books I could find.  Tra la la.  It pays off.

My first source is the Amazon “Best of the Month” ad.  I scan through it, write down the ones that appeal to me, and try to put them on hold at the library.  Typically I only skip books that are later numbers in a series I haven’t read, superhero comic kind of things, and omnivore cooking stuff.  When I realized Amazon rated books in this way, they’d only been doing it for maybe four months.  I’ve only managed about 60% of that list since then, but I’ve only regretted a pick once or twice.

Next I look at the Powell’s Indiespensable page.  I’ve loved everything they’ve recommended so far, though $40 a month to have it delivered isn’t in my budget.  The best part is, it’s only one book a month, so it’s easy to keep up.

Sometimes I stumble across something when I’m doing a library search online.  This will probably sound weird, but if there are a large number of people waiting for it on hold and I like the cover, I put it on my list.  That’s how I discovered The End of Overeating, for example.

You might see me in a bookstore one day.  I’m not proud of this, but I keep a list on my old PDA to go look up in the library later.  I do buy things at bookstores, just not always books!  I buy blank books, cookbooks, and the majority of my gifts for family.  If I go to a reading, I always make sure to buy something – just typically not the book of the person who read.  There are two things I can’t afford:  The $5000 a year it would take to keep me in new books, and the space to stack them all up in my house once I’m done.

Blogs and reviews are only rarely sources for me when I’m “book shopping.”  The reason is that I hate spoilers.  I’ll only read a review if it’s of a nonfiction book.  I don’t mind the rare occasion, maybe once every six weeks or so, when I wind up reading something that isn’t really my speed.  For me it’s worth paying that price so I can preserve my tabula rasa approach to a novel.

I work with two lists:  My current shopping list and my old “great books” spreadsheet.  That was compiled of the Pulitzer, Booker, and National Book Award winners, among other literary awards, the New York Times Notable list, and the 1,000 Books the Fiction Police Will Kill You If You Don’t Read Soon list, for starters.  There are another maybe 270 random picks left on my Goodreads page.  At the rate I’m going I’ll have to live to a very ripe old age, but hey, it’s better than staring at the wall.

Reading Too Much?

March 4, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 15 Comments

How do you know when you, or someone you love, reads too much?

  • Moss is growing on the back of your head.
  • Your hands refuse to unbend from book-clamping position.
  • You lose circulation from the waist down.
  • Neighborhood children run screaming when you get the mail, because they think you’re a witch.
  • It’s been so long since you watched TV that you think X Files is still running.
  • Librarians visibly react when you walk in – either in pleasure or fear.
  • You know instinctively how to find a book because you memorized the Dewey Decimal system so long ago.
  • You think in text.
  • Audio books take up more space on your iPod than music or photos.
  • When someone asks if you’ve seen a movie, everyone recites along with you, “No, but I read the book.”
  • You anticipate the Booker and Pulitzer award announcements but can’t tell the Super Bowl from the World Series or the Grammys from the Emmys.
  • When you move, it’s a given you’ll have more boxes of books than clothes or cookware.
  • Your computer is nearly a decade old but you’re saving for the next-generation e-reader first.
  • The bar code sticker is wearing off your library card.
  • There is a designated space on your bookshelf for library books.
  • You track your reading on a spreadsheet.
  • You keep any kind of list of books read or to read.
  • You know the meaning of the acronym TBR and sigh when you hear it.
  • There are books stacked next to your bed.
  • There are books stacked in your bathroom.  (Hi Grandma!)
  • You would consider purchasing a device that allowed reading in the shower.
  • When reading while eating, you’re more likely to let your food go cold than leave your page unturned.
  • When you pick up a book, the dog runs over because he knows it’s couch time.
  • You read standing up.
  • You read while walking.
  • You’ve read during sex.  Or wished you could.

Can you think of any I missed?

Dubious Memoirs

March 2, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Posted in Book Blather, Memoir | 4 Comments

What do you do when a contested memoir makes the news?  A few years ago we learned that A Million Little Pieces was partly fabricated.  I just finished listening to A Long Way Gone on audio, and somewhere during the final disk I learned that some of the facts were in dispute.

I’ve written before about problems with memoirs.  Chances are good that at least one person involved in the story will disagree violently with the author’s interpretation of events.  That doesn’t mean the author is wrong.  Other people in the story may have been in an altered state, may be in total denial, might not have been there, may misremember or have very poor recall in general, may misunderstand what the author is trying to say, or may simply have a bone to pick for some reason.  Say someone writes a memoir about being raised by a drunken, abusive child molester, and it’s all true – is the parent going to stand up and say, “Yeah, I did it”?

On the other hand, just where is the line between memoir and fiction?  It’s wrong to present fiction as truth, we all seem to agree on that.  What if you wrote a memoir and presented it as a novel?

News media uphold a certain standard of fact-checking before they will publish a story.  When caught in an error, they will publish a correction.  Book publishers are not held to the same standard.  One suspects that they may regard a controversial memoir with delight, because it can only serve to drive up publicity and thus sales.

I reviewed The Night of the Gun some time ago, and to my mind this is an ideal format for a memoir.  The author realizes his memories of a particular event do not jibe with those of his friends, so he sets out to interview people he knew at that time in his life to try to get the most accurate picture possible.  He was doing a lot of drugs at the time and recognized that his recall might be faulty.  What emerges is an absolutely terrific, mind-blowing book.

The author of A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah, seems to be taking the position that he has a photographic memory (he elaborates on this in the book) and that thus everything he wrote has to be true.  The power of his story would not have been reduced if he had presented materials to support his recall of events.  On the contrary, it would have built his case.  If only 5% of his story turned out to be true, it would still be enough to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis of child soldiers.

I think dubious memoirs would not be such a problem if the reading public showed a greater taste for hard-core nonfiction.  As long as we need a memoir or a novel to draw our attention to something newsworthy, we are going to continue to see scandals of accuracy.

Walk and Read

February 13, 2010 at 3:37 am | Posted in Book Blather | 2 Comments

Yesterday I went on a long walk, and I decided to listen to an audio book on the way.  Often I read while walking, and I’ve taken a bit of flak for it – pedestrian comments, honking, and once a lecture from a gentleman who was riding a bicycle on the sidewalk rather than use the bike lane two feet away.  I thought an audio book would be a nice compromise.

It turns out this works really well as long as there is no traffic.  As soon as a vehicle got within two car lengths, I could no longer hear until it had passed behind me about the same distance.  Unfortunately, even on a quiet street traffic was just busy enough to ensure that the book spent as long on Pause as it did on Play.  When I hit the main thoroughfare I gave up and put the headphones away.

No sooner had I done so than I saw a young girl texting while pedaling a bicycle.  I guess nobody wants to travel without some kind of entertainment!

PS I got honked at anyway.

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