I have to confess that I have been bingeing again. And not in the usual food and drink way. It's not the kind of thing I like to talk about in public, but here, among hopefully kindred souls, the guilty truth can come out - I've been buying too many cookbooks online again.
I know I'm not alone. And from a glance at the media, every man, woman and child on the face of the earth must be buying them regularly to support the rate at which they are being written. Nevertheless, I still don't feel quite comfortable settling down to a read of my latest Jane Grigson on the train during my commute. There are still a lot of people that think a cookbook belongs in the kitchen.
But I do read them. And I know how it all started. First volumes filled with recipes, preferably with lots of nice colour pics. Then the pictures become less important. Then begins the obsession with encyclopedic facts, countries of origin, history ... and the slide into addiction is unstoppable.
The road to a fascination with Internet book buying has much in common with getting hooked on cooking itself. Isolation and thrift can motivate both interests. If you cannot find what you want, or can only get it by paying through the nose, the great world wide web comes to the rescue again. And there are advantages for remote browsing that can beat being there.
The obvious advantage the online bookstore has over its traditional competition is flexibility. Real business hours can be just inconvenient as inaccessibility. But Amazon.com and its sort never close. Literally millions of titles can be brought to you, rather than vice versa, and as you get sidetracked your original search can become a kind of free association of interesting topics, leaving you with a shopping cart full of riveting titles you didn't know existed.
The temptations are infinite, and you can leave your cart behind for next time if your budget is tight. Or you can send your shopping list to friends and family and hope the goodies turn up in a Christmas stocking instead. Either way, one must be strong to resist the lure of so many juicy alternatives.
Another surprising facet of online book hunting is the social aspect. You don't even have to get dressed to take part in the virtual community, yet at the same time you are never alone. Most online booksellers attach both media reviews and reader feedback to a title's presentation. While the opinions of dozens of total strangers can never be the same as thumbing through the book yourself, it does offer an engaging, and sometimes entertaining, alternative. You just have to get acquainted with the quirks of this lively system.
One of the 'best' reader reviews I ever read was a bad one for a cookbook I was considering buying. The book had a relatively low score, due to a terrible grade from one reader. Luckily, this dissatisfied customer went into some detail. The reader lashed into this ethnic cookbook, basically for being startlingly authentic, containing foreign ingredients and recipes producing the kind of exotic food the buyer just didn't like. Besides posing the baffling mystery of how this person could ever have been possessed to purchase a book so obviously guaranteed to displease, the review provided a lot of helpful information.
Sometimes you will find that the object of your desire has gone out of print. And while the major players like Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer automatic services to try and locate rarer titles, a specialist does a much better job.
On one of my earlier shopping junkets I wondered why there were no books for various ethnic cuisines that showed basic techniques. For classical French inspired cooking this kind of book is relatively commonplace - why not for more exotic styles? This idle thought led to the discovery of Ken Hom's fascinating book on Chinese Techniques.
Even though I am not likely ever to bake whole animals in clay, there are a lot of less esoteric, not to mention useful, skills to be learned there as well - but this book has long been out of print. Using a service like ABE - the Advanced Book Exchange - tracking it down once I knew it existed was a snap.
The world of rare or out-of-print books is even more dangerously seductive than your run-of-the-mill millions of titles virtual bookshop. The range rivals that of the mainstream bookstores and has the added attraction of treasure hunting, or an archaeological dig. So far I have not yet been lured into the dusty charms of antique collecting, but I couldn't help noticing a prime specimen of an early Mrs. Beeton's in a shop window recently...
These booksellers can often procure cheap used copies of current titles, and this is an option the bargain hunter should keep in mind. My experience indicates that one can generally trust the quoted condition of a used book, but that shipping costs tend to be higher from these smaller dealers. It takes a little extra time to find the best buy, but then again that is part of the hunt.
Ordering books via the Internet has one other advantage, especially if you are far from the main lines of supply in the USA and UK - you have the time the package is in transit to raise the money for the bill.
Jonathan Tisdall is a Japanese-Irish-American freelance journalist who emigrated to London before settling in Norway. This has resulted in a wide range of influences, and he still occasionally forgets where he is.
© Jonathan Tisdall, 2002