E-cookbooks would never replace REAL cookbooks. No way. I was sure of it. Not my beloved cookbooks, ink on paper, with a olive oil stain to give them character. I love reading, I love books, and I am addicted to cookbooks.* I would never going over to the dark side. Never!
Addict? Me? I can give up cookbooks any time I want. My cookbook habit doesn't control me, I control it… Hey, is that Michael Ruhlman's new cookbook? I must have it. Mine! My…precious!
Now, I'm not a Luddite; I went online with a 1200 baud modem back in the 80's. But books are my constant companions - ever since I snuck them under the covers with a flashlight as a kid. I held out against e-books as long as I could.
My wife, however, used a Kindle for a few weeks, and then had to give it up. After lots of requests, I bought her a Kindle of her own. After a few months, I borrowed it for a business trip. I was hooked - so much for my loyalty to ink and paper. I went out and bought myself an iPad not long afterwards, so I wouldn't have to fight for access to (her!) Kindle.
At first, I only bought novels. (Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels are my weakness. I'm sure you're shocked to learn this.) Novels are easy, I told myself; paragraph after paragraph of text, with no special formatting or pictures. E-books would still never replace my cookbooks.
Eventually, I cracked. Mark Bittman's What I Grill and Why, only available as an e-book, was on sale for $2.99. I couldn't pass it up. Then I was
obsessed interested in making a Japanese Hot Pot for dinner…tonight. Even with overnight shipping, it would be too late. Ono and Salat's Japanese Hot Pots was just a download away.
Now I'm the proud owner of eight e-cookbooks. I want to buy more; my plan is to trade in my paper cookbooks and replace them with e-cookbooks. Why the sudden change of heart?
Advantages to Kindle Cookbooks:
I'm a blogger, in case you didn't notice. I have a screen in front of me, or within arm's reach, at all times. I spend the day in front of my iMac. I cook with my iPad on the island in my kitchen, recipe at the ready. I blog with my MacBook in my lap. I finish the day on my bed, pillows behind my back, reading from my iPad.* Having my cookbooks right there on the screen, no matter what I'm doing, is so darn easy. All my cookbooks at my fingertips? I don't have to go get them from the shelf, or, heaven forfend, walk downstairs to get one? And if I don't have a cookbook I want, I can download it under thirty seconds, including fumble-fingering my credit card once again? It is just so darned easy. I'm hooked.
And yes, I'm an Apple Fanboy, why do you ask?
Space (the final frontier):
I have a bookshelf dedicated to cookbooks. An Ikea Billy bookshelf, with a maximum load per shelf of 66 pounds. Only 66 pounds? Ha! That poor bookshelf is creaking and groaning under the weight of books I have stuffed in it. Every year I have to purge ruthlessly.*
Or, Ruthlessly, if I have to get rid of one of Mrs. Reichl's books.
I hate to purge cookbooks. It's like throwing away old friends. But after a year of
cookbook binges carefully selected purchases, I'm squeezing books into every available nook and cranny, so tight the shelves bulge. After The Purge, my bookshelf is organized…for a while. I always want more cookbooks.
Like I said, I don't have a problem. I can quit any time I want.
An e-book reader solves all this. All the books are weightless, spaceless, hidden behind that thin screen. Done with that one? Delete it and it is stored in your archive. Need it back? It downloads in seconds.
Easy to bookmark favorite recipes, and search for text:
My favorite cookbooks are bristling with bookmarks. I use magazine subscription cards as bookmarks. I also use post-it notes, and random scraps of paper. There's another recipe I want to try - whatever small scrap of paper I can find becomes a bookmark. The bookmark feature of the Kindle reader is the digital equivalent of all those scraps of paper poking out of the top of the book. Looking for Julia Child's Leek and Potato soup? Open up Mastering The Art of French Cooking, click on the bookmarks tab, and there it is.
Text search is the other killer feature in digital cookbooks. I want to check out the pressure cooker recipes in Jaques Pepin's latest cookbook. They're a search away; no worries that they are not in the index. Also, cross-linked recipes can be real links, just like on the web. If the hot pot has ponzu sauce as an ingredient, I just click on the link, then the back button when I'm done.
Now, it's not all rainbows and unicorns. There are some drawbacks to e-cookbooks…
Disadvantages to Kindle Cookbooks:
Formatting and Indexing:
E-cookbooks are easier to navigate…usually. There is a big gotcha. Converting a cookbook to a digital version isn't easy. The care put into the digital conversion of the cookbook matters. A whole lot. Novels are simple; novels are paragraphs of text. You start with the introduction, and read until you get to "The End." Cookbooks are another story*; they use different formats and styles, arrange text in columns and sidebars, and embed pictures to show a technique. The digital conversion of a cookbook is trickier than a novel.
Get it…novels…story…oh, never mind.
My best (worst?) example is the digital conversion of Page and Dornenburg's The Flavor Bible. This is one of my go-to reference cookbooks. I use the hardcover version on a regular basis. When I saw they had a kindle version, I jumped on it - how convenient, being able to carry it with me! But wait...
The main part of the book is a dictionary of flavor combinations, hundreds of ingredients with a list of other ingredients they go with. As an example, Thyme is listed in bold caps, followed by an indented list of other ingredients that pair with it; particularly good matches are in bold caps, good matches are in bold, normal matches are in regular type. Finding an ingredient in the hardcover is tricky; I zero in on the section of the alphabet, like finding a word in a dictionary. "Let's see, Thyme. (Opens book to middle). Mangoes, (flip) Shiso, (flip) Trout, (page back) Tomatoes, (page back) Thyme…no wait, that's under the Tomatoes (page back) Thyme. There it is."
The e-book version of The Flavor Bible takes this from tricky to painful. All of the ingredient lists are in one chapter, with no sub-headings. I have to start at Achiote Seeds and work from there. Text search doesn't help - almost every ingredient goes with hundreds of other ingredients, so the "real" copy of the ingredient is lost in the flurry of matches. There is no good way to flip around in the e-book; dragging the scroll bar is the best way I've found, but does not work as easily as flipping pages in a book. Finally, there is no index of the ingredients with links to work from. And…in spite of these problems, I still use the e-book version more than the paper version. Like I said, I'm too lazy to go downstairs and get it off the shelf when it's right there. And it feels like I'm saving time, using the e-version…but it could be so much easier.
*If anyone has a good way of getting around in the Kindle version of The Flavor Bible, please let me know in the comments!
Another example is Ono and Salat's Japanese Hot Pots. In general, the conversion to an e-cookbook is well done. The table of contents has every recipe with a link, making it easy to get to the recipe you want. There are a lot of useful cross-links in the ingredients, referring to basic recipes earlier in the book. But there is one thing the digital conversion missed. The book has a lot of sidebars, next to the main flow of the text in the paper version. Usually, the e-book moves the sidebars to the end of the current section of text. Except when they don't. Ono and Salat are discussing a list of finishing options for hot pots, and in the middle of the list a sidebar paragraph suddenly appears. It looks like the finishing options are done…but there are a couple more coming after the sidebar. It's not a fatal flaw, but it is annoying.
Please note that I'm not blaming the authors for these problems. It feels like publishers are still working on how to format digital cookbooks. A great digital cookbook conversion is Jaques Pepin's Essential Pepin. The table of contents has a link to the first page of each major section: Soups, Salads, Poultry, Beef, and so on. The first page of each section lists all the recipes in that section, with a link to each recipe. Every recipe is three clicks away. Jump to Table of Contents, select Poultry, select Poulet-au-Pot from the recipe list…and there it is. Quick and easy.
Sometimes, the price of Kindle cookbooks feels like a ripoff. It seems like Kindle books should be significantly cheaper than paper books. You don't have to take a couple of pounds of paper and ink, wrap it in bubble wrap, put it in a cardboard box, fly it across the country, and pay for the nice UPS guy to walk it to my front door to drop it off. That's a lot of effort, right? The Kindle version saves all that effort, so it should be a lot less expensive, right? Yet a twenty-five dollar cookbook is available in the kindle version for...twenty two dollars. Seriously? All that extra effort is only worth three dollars?
*Jaques Pepin's Essential Pepin, again, is an example how they should handle this. It's a steal at $9.99 for the e-book version, compared to $26.99 for the hardcover.
Of course, what's worse than feeling ripped off? No Kindle version of the book at all. I'm ready to complain about the expensive Kindle version, but I have my credit card out, and they won't even take my money? How dare they. How dare they not rip me off!
Wait, I need to be logically consistent? Shoot. Since when?
E-cookbooks are new, and digital conversions are few and far between. Finding an old favorite in the Kindle format is hit or miss - usually miss. And, even with newer cookbooks, the release of the e-version can be delayed. I wanted the e-version of Michael Ruhlman's Twenty, and I had to wait a month after the paper version was released. As I said above, one of the huge e-cookbook advantages is instant gratification. How does four weeks qualify as "instant"?
The Book Experience:
Michael Ruhlman's Twenty is a tribute to publishing. The book is a work of art. Hardbound, printed on substantial, glossy paper; loaded with Donna Ruhlman's gorgeous photography; it even has a ribbon bookmark, to help you mark the page you're reading. It belongs on a pedestal in a library, next to the Oxford English Dictionary.
We're all comfortable with books, and used to working with them. Books don't need batteries, they aren't ruined if you spill something on them, and you can instantly jump anywhere in the book by flipping to a page. Books are an old friend, and feel comfortable in my hands.
But then again…
This is where it gets interesting. Ruhlman's Twenty belongs in a museum, but it wound up buried on my bed stand. I read through chapter eight (Dough), found the book fascinating, put it down…and once it was covered up by a couple of other books and magazines, I never got back to it. Even though I knew I should. I bought the Kindle edition for this review (after that month long wait, darn it) for comparison.
Here was my perfect test case. How does a beautiful book compare to the e-book version? It's not the same experience; not the same feeling of holding a work of art in my hands. But the Kindle version is a very good digital conversion. Donna's gorgeous photography is in there; slightly smaller on my iPad, but still looking great. I don't have my ribbon bookmark…but I can drop bookmarks wherever I want to. I wanted to find the braised chicken leg recipe; a text search got me there instantly. And, most important, I finished reading Twenty in the Kindle version. The paper version is still hidden under a stack of magazines on my bed stand; once I had the e-book, I didn't feel the need to find it.
I've gone digital, and I don't think I'm going back. In spite of the drawbacks, and there are quite a few, the electronic versions are just too convenient. I love the feel of a book in my hand…and I also love the feel of an e-reader. There's something about sitting under a blanket with my iPad, tapping the right side of the screen to flip pages. It feels effortless. And having every e-book I own at my fingertips, in a 1.33 pound package? I'm in love. I still buy cookbooks all the time, but I'm starting to get annoyed when there isn't a Kindle version available.
Why Kindle? Why not Nook, or iBook (or some other format I don't know about?). Format wars are another downside to e-books. When my wife decided to get a Kindle, I was pretty much locked in. If I stick with Kindle, I can read all the books she buys, and vice versa. Kindle seems to have the best selection of books. Finally, Kindle reader software is available on almost every platform. I can take my e-books from my iPad to my desktop to my laptop.
The Nook format also looks good; they seem to have software that runs on all platforms, and a good selection of books. But, like I said, I was committed to Kindle before I really made a choice.
Why iPad? A couple reasons. One...It is so choice. If you have the means I highly recommend picking one up. (Again, I'm an Apple Fanboy.) Two, the big screen on the iPad is amazing. There's no comparison to my wife's (old, black and white) Kindle screen.
The Kindle Fire could give the iPad a run…but I don't want to give up the larger iPad screen, and extra processing power, even for a lower price. That said, I may have to pick a Fire up for my kids, to get them to stop playing Jetpack Joyride and give me back my iPad!
*Really, I want see how Apple responds to the Fire before I commit to yet another platform.
What do you think?
Questions? Other ideas? Leave them in the comments section below.
Essential Pepin: More Than 700 All-Time Favorites from My Life in Food
Ruhlman's Twenty: The Ideas and Techniques that Will Make You a Better Cook
Apple iPad 2 Tablet (16GB, Wifi,) NEWEST MODEL
Kindle Fire, Full Color 7" Multi-touch Display, Wi-Fi
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this was helpful. I think another reason to get a Kindle Paperwhite.
Just converting to Kindle and wasn't sure how others felt about e-cookbooks, hence my Google search yielding your entertaining blog post. I realize it was written quite a while ago and that you've surely come up with a solution to locating things in The Flavor Bible. An aid in that situation would be to highlight the first entry (or more, if you feel like it) for each letter (anise, basil, caraway...). On my Kindle Fire, I can use different colors to highlight that sort of bookmark as opposed to my real highlights. That way, your notes can act as an index. Thanks for an amusing read! 🙂
Thank you so much for writing this! I was trying to find out if I can go completely digital with my cookbooks, but it seems like I can't yet (at least, not with every book). I thought there was some kind of industry standard on formatting ecookbooks. =( A few years ago, I had books all over NY--my own apartment, my parents' house, their office, my boyfriend's apt--but now the two of us have moved to a 440 SF apt in Japan, and there's no room for anything! I hoping the industry can figure this out so I can buy books again with ease!
I also love the smell of an old (or brand new) book - unless it's a library book. I do NOT want to know what the mystery stains are on a library book. 😉 I am thinking very seriously about switching to e-cookbooks, simply for convenience and ease of storing. We recently moved from a 2000 sq ft home to a 750, and my cookbooks are a casualty of the downsizing, they are stacked here and there, and I never seem to find what I want, though I know it's here somewhere, etc. I don't know that I'll replace them all, but I'm researching some of my favorites, and I plan to only buy e-versions, when available, from here on out.
I'm also converting to iPad versions of my physical cookbooks - I don't have enough counter space to hold a Bittman AND cook dinner. The iPad also solves the ecological issue of printing out recipes from the Web; I just use the iPad.
MikeV @ DadCooksDinner says
@DineInDiva and @Cyclophiliac: I don't know what happened; I thought I responded to your comments Tuesday...but it's lost.
@DineInDiva: Purging is always painful, like amputating a limb. Though, my cookbook collection is hovering around 100 books, not 750...
@Cyclophiliac: Pam, I'm shocked, SHOCKED to hear that you don't trust technology.
MikeV @ DadCooksDinner says
Evernote, eh? I keep hearing good things about it; I have to try it.
Great post, Mike. Although books certainly have a magical quality about them (I, too, love the smell of opening up an old book), in terms of cookbooks, I'm with you 100%...I am also with you 110% on The Flavor Bible layout...that drives me nuts.
While I will always have books around I treasure, for the sake of simplicity, ease and mobility, I'm buying everything in Kindle format for either my iPad, or the closest computer. You cannot replace my Grandmother's cookbooks. However, when I'm trying to minimize the "things" in my life, I can certainly live with my cookbooks "in the cloud".
In fact, I may expound upon your post with my love of Evernote. When it comes to recipe hording, note taking and meal remembrance, there is so much to turn to with electronic media.
It will be a cold, sad day when one can no longer experience the hidden treasure that lies between the paperbound covers of a real book. Digital content can never replace the experience (or that great smell!) of the printed word. And you can't scribble notes in the margins, or find recipe modifications in your great-grandmother's handwriting. There are things about real books that technology can't be trusted to improve upon.
I love my iPad and have a few cookbooks on Kindle, but for me, unless there is some added content bonus, like imbedded videos on the Every Day Food app (Martha Stewart), I don't think I would want to convert my 750 cookbook library to all digital even if I could.
It kind of makes me sad to think that someday books will become extinct.
re: Purging - I have donated about 4 carloads to the Akron Summit library. They are happy to take those that are in good shape.