Useful Books
February 16, 2008 10:01 AM   Subscribe

What is the most useful book you own?

Anything and everything. An example list: The Joy of Cooking, Readers Digest Fix-It-Yourself, The Elements of Style.

Not what I'm looking for: "Physician's Desk Reference... hollowed out. Inside: waterproof matches, iodine tablets, beet seeds, protein bars, NASA blanket and, in case I get bored, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. No, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." :)
posted by shotgunbooty to Education (103 answers total) 232 users marked this as a favorite
The Unix Programming Environment
posted by tylermoody at 10:06 AM on February 16, 2008

"Gravity's Rainbow".
It's all there.
All of it.
And heavy enough to be a weapon in case I have to defend my selection.
posted by Dizzy at 10:07 AM on February 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

On Directing Film by David Mamet.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 10:07 AM on February 16, 2008

only because the manual isn't actually a book
posted by tylermoody at 10:07 AM on February 16, 2008

How to win any argument as it allows me to defend myself against idiots.
posted by pwally at 10:13 AM on February 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

Big -- no huge! -- dictionary. Traditionally response, but still it's the one I use the most and find the most useful. Mine is a large maroon hardcover Random House.

Second place (tied): thesaurus and a book called Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:15 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I refer to Dan Margulis's "Photoshop LAB color" at least every other week, if that's your thing.

Two others that sat on the toilet tank when I was a bachelor: Gray's Anatomy, so I could figure out what all those aches and pains were, and how to stretch or whatever to make them go away; and The Ashley Book of Knots - every knot for every possible application. At that time in my life, a lot of friends moved a lot, and I had the pickup truck. Spending an extra five minutes using the *correct* knot to lash things down meant it could all be unlashed at the destination in a manner of seconds.
posted by notsnot at 10:16 AM on February 16, 2008

How to Win Friends and Influence People!

Incidentally, it's old enough to be in public domain it seems. Download it if you choose, though Carnegie encourages you to underline and circle key parts, which I recommend.
posted by fogster at 10:16 AM on February 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

Pocket Ref.
posted by majick at 10:19 AM on February 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

How to Cook Everything should always be present in your kitchen. The title is accurate.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 10:19 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America is the book I reference most.
posted by Stewriffic at 10:19 AM on February 16, 2008

Seneca's Letters To Lucilius
posted by matteo at 10:25 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer.
posted by R. Mutt at 10:27 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Handbook of Poisoning.

No, wait--it's a medical text. I bought it years ago to discover the LD50 of the chemicals I was spraying in my garden, and have since gone organic. It describes diagnosis, management and prevention of poisoning from food, atmospheric particulates, alcohols, anesthetics, pesticides, cosmetics, drugs of all kinds, household products, reptiles, arachnids, insects, marine animals, plants--you name it; if it's poisonous, it's in there.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:28 AM on February 16, 2008

The Bible
posted by caddis at 10:31 AM on February 16, 2008

Toss-up between "The New Best Recipe" by Cook's Illustrated and Home Depot's massive orange book on how to fix things for Book I Refer To Most Often.
posted by Gianna at 10:34 AM on February 16, 2008

I don't use it much any more, but everything I learned about the job search--resumes, cover letters, interview etiquette, thank you notes--I learned from the Idiot
s Guide to Resumes--and I get a lot of interviews/offers.
posted by sweetkid at 10:37 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll second Pocket Ref. It has everything you could ever need to know for pretty much anything out in the great wide world.
posted by conradjones at 10:42 AM on February 16, 2008

The Tightwad Gazette.
posted by JanetLand at 10:48 AM on February 16, 2008

Big -- no huge! -- dictionary.

Yup. I've got two huge ones—the OED and Webster's Third International—and several merely big ones (American Heritage, New Oxford American, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, etc.); if I had to keep just one, it would be the OED, hands down.
posted by languagehat at 10:49 AM on February 16, 2008

It's hard to pick a single number one, but How to Win Friends and Influence People is a very strong contender.
posted by Nelsormensch at 10:51 AM on February 16, 2008

An Incomplete Education. It distills classical education down to funny, well-written, easily digestible bites. I got it for high school graduation about 15 years ago. I used it a lot during college, and I stilll find myself referring to it from time to time. Oh, I also have that Home Depot book. It's been helpful. In fact, I am about to tackle hanging some kitchen cabinets using this book.
posted by kimdog at 10:52 AM on February 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, 18th ed., but only because I have to do a lot of complex legal citation.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:53 AM on February 16, 2008

Janson's History of Art. You wouldn't believe how much I refer to this book on a weekly basis. And I'm not even an artist/art critic/art whatever.
posted by meerkatty at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2008

Strunk & White, i.e. The Elements of Style.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Joy of Cooking and The New Best Recipe both get a lot of play in my household. But I refer to my Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary (5th edition) countless times every day.

Other faves: Dorling & Kindersley Ultimate Visual Dictionary, Chicago Manual of Style, and my cherished McMaster-Carr catalog (which, if I used more often, would obviate the need for a gym membership).
posted by adamrice at 11:00 AM on February 16, 2008

Lam Rim Chen Mo in three volumes.
posted by milarepa at 11:06 AM on February 16, 2008

Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House hasn't been mentioned yet, and it's pretty high on my list.
posted by box at 11:09 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I use The Dictionary of New Testament Background all the time. (But what's useful for me is seldom useful for 99.8% of the general populace.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:13 AM on February 16, 2008

On Food and Cooking by McGee
Practical Programming for Strength Training by Rippetoe
posted by AceRock at 11:13 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Peter Kennedy's A Guide to Econometrics. If I need a quick refresher on some technique I haven't used in a while, it's always the first place I look.
posted by shadow vector at 11:14 AM on February 16, 2008

Now that I have the letters M.Ed after my name I don't have to use it that much, but there was a time that this book, Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association: Fifth Edition ruled my life!
posted by tamitang at 11:16 AM on February 16, 2008


The definitive Finnish recipe book. First edition published in 1908 and has kept my homesickenss at bay for the best way I know how for the last 6 years in two foreign countries.

Hey, you asked.
posted by slimepuppy at 11:16 AM on February 16, 2008

Mine is the "Modern Educator." It's this book from 1912 I got at a library book sale for a buck and it has: verb conjugations for French, German, and Italian; sport and card game rules (such as for base-ball, basket-ball, and shinny [also known as "hockey" to some]), classic American poems, conversion charts, rules of parliamentary procedure, how to operate an auto-mobile, the mechanics of the new aero-plane, etiquette (including etiquette for solo female travelers), penmanship, bookkeeping, shorthand, how to write a letter (such as a letter to ask your dear friend to borrow his copy of Darwin's "The Origin of Species" from his personal library), basic architecture, a brief history of the United States and Western Civilization, an introduction to the physical sciences..."a complete cyclopedia in one volume."

I would not sell it for any given sum and it is definitely the most useful book I have.
posted by champthom at 11:19 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Vampire: The Masquerade. 1st Edition.


Webster's Dictionary
posted by mr_book at 11:20 AM on February 16, 2008

---Or maybe a hardbound OED
posted by mr_book at 11:21 AM on February 16, 2008

Moby Dick. It's like a bottomless bottle of xanax, only better since it litters my dreams with leviathans and ivory-legged madmen.
posted by kickback at 11:29 AM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

How to Look Sideways
posted by parmanparman at 11:31 AM on February 16, 2008

A toss-up between The Sibley Guide to Birds and the Chicago Manual of Style.
posted by rtha at 11:32 AM on February 16, 2008

Children's Writer's Word Book.

I'm driven to get at the roots of ideas.
And I tend to think in too many syllables to be easily understood.

Two uses, one book.
posted by dragonsi55 at 11:36 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

"The Great Gatsby."

In another sense, Robert Mckee's "Story."
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:49 AM on February 16, 2008

Biological sequence analysis
posted by grouse at 11:51 AM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Joy of Cooking but edition specific. 4th edition from 1962 is the best of both the modern and the rustic. How to make a soufflé just a few pages down from how to skin a possum. (Boot on the tail and pull up with the back legs, illus. on page 453). I really can not use the current edition. Where the hell did all the butter and folk wisdom go?

I'm also constantly referencing the King Arthur Flour 20th Anniversary Cookbook for anything that uses flour.

Rodale's How to Grow Vegetable's & Fruits by the Organic Method. Our edition is from 1961.

The American Heritage Dictionary is another fav. We get a new one every couple years.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:54 AM on February 16, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology are excellent.

Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical handbooks, by Nigel Calder. Clunky but encyclopediac.
posted by Rumple at 11:54 AM on February 16, 2008

The Bluebook.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:58 AM on February 16, 2008

Used the most, my dictionary. I agree with Benet's Readers Encyclopedia, and an honorable mention for The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
posted by wafaa at 11:59 AM on February 16, 2008

Rogert's Thesaurus - the original format

It has the words categorized by idea instead of alphabetically.

Take Care of Yourself: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Medical Self-Care

This book will save you tons of time. Instead of agonizing whether you need to go see the Dr. or not, you can have a look at this book and it will give you the self care you can do at home or tell you if you really need to go see a doc.
posted by bigmusic at 12:02 PM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've never looked at The New Best Recipe (but I've added it to my wishlist). However, the Cook's Illustrated book that gets most used in our house is The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.
posted by mmascolino at 12:03 PM on February 16, 2008

My college organic chemistry textbook, because I will never need a sleeping pill when I can just read a few pages of that!
posted by amfea at 12:06 PM on February 16, 2008

The Art of Road Bike Maintenance (at least useful 5 months/year here)
I also like Guide de la communication écrite (Marie Malo) because it's concise but always pertinent.
posted by ddaavviidd at 12:12 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Machinery's Handbook.
posted by jet_silver at 12:13 PM on February 16, 2008

Most of my most-used resources are online (thesauruses, the OED, etc.)

Offline, ee cummings, 100 selected poems. Almost everyone likes SOMETHING from that book, and it's a good way to introduce a bit of joy into someone's life. Love poems, dirty poems, dirty love poems, political satire, poems about getting old, poems about dear old mum (maybe just one of those), they're all in there.
posted by sondrialiac at 12:17 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have to second Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House - it's rare in that it's both encyclopedic and a joy to read chapter by chapter. A most excellent gift for a newlywed couple or a new homeowner. Very detailed instructions on the best way to care for absolutely everything in your house.
posted by dreamphone at 12:23 PM on February 16, 2008

>How to win any argument as it allows me to defend myself against idiots.

sounds great. here i was thinking it was an impossible task to be avoided at all costs.

might have to check out that book. thanks, pwally
posted by gcat at 12:24 PM on February 16, 2008

Seconding Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance.

A book I just recently discovered but feel will come in great handy is On Food and Cooking.
posted by casaubon at 12:31 PM on February 16, 2008

Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us. A comprehensive anthology of American poetry from 1900-1970; small enough to slip in a largish coat pocket and take along on the train.
posted by Iridic at 12:32 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Power in Organizations, although I don't think it's in print, having been updated I believe by Managing with Power, which I haven't yet read. The original was the single biggest influence in my corporate career, and I gave out many copies.
posted by F Mackenzie at 12:34 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

For many years, the most useful book I owned was The C Programming Language.
posted by JeffL at 12:48 PM on February 16, 2008

For this amateur gardener and floraphile, it's definitely Stirling MacOboy's hugely comprehensive What Flower is That?
posted by frobozz at 12:54 PM on February 16, 2008

Being a US history junkie I have to say Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
posted by Holy foxy moxie batman! at 1:04 PM on February 16, 2008

The New York Public Library Desk Reference . It's got answers to most things you might Google or ask a librarian to find. Good for general reading, too.
posted by Riverine at 1:14 PM on February 16, 2008

Emily Post's Etiquette
posted by pineapple at 1:19 PM on February 16, 2008

my most often consulted reference books:
etiquette book (I like the big Miss Manners, but Emily Post etc would do)
Norton Anthology of English Lit, and Norton Anthology of Poetry
Knitting Without Tears by Elizabeth Zimmerman
world atlas
Joy of Cooking or other basic cookbook; Mark Bittman's Everything Vegetarian is a new one I'm using a lot
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:45 PM on February 16, 2008

and a medical reference book (basic family medical guide, or some title like that -- big, with pictures)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:47 PM on February 16, 2008

On Food And Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. Absolutely, utterly indispensible.

Barnhart's Concise Dictionary of Etymology ed. Robert Barnhart
posted by mr. remy at 1:55 PM on February 16, 2008

Getting Things Done.

It changed my life. Seriously.
posted by icebourg at 1:56 PM on February 16, 2008

Lots of good cookbooks listed already. Another favorite at our house is The Complete Meat Cookbook. If you're into grilling, Barbecue Nation also has a lot of practical, everyday recipes.
posted by Atom12 at 1:57 PM on February 16, 2008

In addition to the many excellent suggestions above New Best Recipe~! I would like to suggest Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and Scarne's New Complete Guide to Gambling. The wisdom contained within will enrich your life and your pocketbook.
posted by jtron at 2:01 PM on February 16, 2008

Random House Word Menu

It's like an encyclopedia of thesauruses (thesauri?). I read the thing cover-to-cover in 7th grade. Love it!
posted by chara at 3:02 PM on February 16, 2008

A,Chilton's Repair Manual for each of my cars. It's the first thing I buy after I purchase a car.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:59 PM on February 16, 2008

Dark Nights of the Soul

Why yes, I am going through a relationship break-up right now.

Good to read anyway, if you're going through a tough time or not.
posted by idiomatika at 3:59 PM on February 16, 2008

Ashley Book of Knots
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:16 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Instant HTML. I've owned the book for years and still refer to it for reference and clarification.
posted by JaySunSee at 4:29 PM on February 16, 2008

American Medical Association Family Medical Guide

The book has great flowcharts where you can go from symptoms to a diagnosis. We consult it a lot around here.
posted by Shoggoth at 5:06 PM on February 16, 2008

Either the aforementioned Machinery's Handbook, or this Boy Scout handbook.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:42 PM on February 16, 2008

I second "How to Cook Everything."
posted by yesno at 6:13 PM on February 16, 2008

Successful Home Repair: When Not to Call the Contractor. Just about any fix-it book is useful.
posted by SPrintF at 6:37 PM on February 16, 2008

Collected works of Sherlock Holmes. There's never a down time that book doesn't make better.
posted by StephenF at 6:50 PM on February 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I find that the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám has just the right mix of Buddha-like joy, resolute acceptance, humor and wonder at the marvelous world, somber realism, and poetic beauty to promote a healthy outlook on life. Some editions of it are better than others. Project Gutenberg has several.
posted by XMLicious at 7:59 PM on February 16, 2008

The Visual Food Encyclopedia &
Melissa's Great Book of Produce
posted by dobbs at 8:15 PM on February 16, 2008

I love all of my Heloise books. My favorite is an inherited copy of Heloise All Around the House originally published in 1965. Even though some of the hints are dated, I still refer to it.
posted by dogmom at 9:11 PM on February 16, 2008

posted by thebrokedown at 9:23 PM on February 16, 2008

The Torah
posted by Smalltown Girl at 10:23 PM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Almost nthing The Best Recipe, by Cooks Illustrated, except unlike previous posters, I prefer the original edition to the New Best Recipe, though I have them both. Without a doubt, the most used book I've ever owned.
posted by purenitrous at 11:27 PM on February 16, 2008

There was another question on ask.metafilter not too long ago: "List the best (or standard, or essential) text in your field/profession/etc", which I, of course, didn't favorite. I've looked for the last half-hour and I can't find it, but your meta-fu may be better than mine.

If it is, please meta-mail me with its whereabouts =).
posted by eclectist at 1:00 AM on February 17, 2008

probably this thread, eclecticist, which may be the most favorited thread ever.
posted by Rumple at 1:09 AM on February 17, 2008

It's definitely the most-favorited AskMe thread.
posted by cgc373 at 1:11 AM on February 17, 2008

1984, by George Orwell.
posted by andeluria at 2:27 AM on February 17, 2008

The Joy of Cooking
posted by triggerfinger at 6:23 AM on February 17, 2008

Jinx, ironmouth.

Also, Colorado Rivers and Creeks, a CO whitewater guidebook, about 1/2 the year.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:23 AM on February 17, 2008

practically useful?

How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot

Down to earth, detailed & chatty book on VW maintenance, in plain english terms, loaded with wonderful Furry Freak Brothers style cartoons by the author, who is surely the Sheldon Brown of veedubs.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:15 PM on February 17, 2008

American Heritage Dictionary
posted by barrakuda at 5:30 PM on February 17, 2008

I have this Name Your Baby book, which I use to get ideas for character names when I'm writing. It has names from various countries, explains the origins of the names, famous namesakes, nicknames, and alternate spellings. I've found some very evocative character names in this book.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:28 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

A Helm Manual (or Clymer or Haynes) for my car. As I've said before, its many dog eared and grease stained pages are the true evil soul to my otherwise innocent looking beater.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:11 AM on February 18, 2008

Hands down, the most useful book I was ever given was How to Hold a Crocodile.

This book is full of instructions on how to do the most obscure things - anything from how to do a headstand to how to become queen of England. I got it when I was a child and still refer to it. Besides some the silly and entertaining entries in it, there are a lot of practical ones.
posted by bristolcat at 8:47 AM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

What to Eat by Marion Nestle is amazing and useful. She's done tons of research about what the labels mean on the stuff you find in the store, so you don't have to.
posted by hought20 at 12:04 PM on February 18, 2008

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills is an all-in-one reference on getting around outdoors, from flats to crags to glaciers. I don't do much technical stuff, but the book is still wonderfully indispensible.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 6:11 PM on February 18, 2008

.How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
.Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson
.The mammoth OED
I also like books that have cocktail recipes. The NYPL Desk Reference is also good.

And for indispensible online resources, comes to mind.
posted by ifjuly at 11:43 AM on July 10, 2008

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