Since our house contains an unfeasibly large number of recipe books, I feel I am sort-of qualified to comment on their relative usability. Many of them remain unused after a single disastrous experiment, others are cheerfully dog-eared and full of bookmarks, turned-down corners and scribbled pencil notes.
So here is a small selection of those we have found useful and those we haven't:
How to be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson.
It is only the barest of exaggerations to say that before acquiring this book I could not bake, and now I am infallible. Every single thing I've cooked/baked from this book has worked admirably first time of asking. Now I should stress that I grew up in a household where everyone was expected to cook, and did. I was non-negotiably assigned to helping in the kitchen from around the age of nine, and cooking has remained a pleasure rather than a chore all my life (one of the many varied things I have to thank my parents for). However, I wouldn't go so far as to claim to be an outstandingly good cook, and baking was always a stressful mystery. Nigella changed that for me - in her books I have at last found a cookery writer who explains things at my level, always giving easy-to-understand hints about judging whether things are ready or not. Her rhubarb grunt and baklava muffins in particular have been delightful revelations. The same principle goes for her other books too.
The Cranks Recipe Book/Entertaining with Cranks
My copies of these date back to the 1980s when my sister turned vegetarian and I then started going out with a vegetarian. This meant I needed reliable veggie recipes at my fingertips. My copies of these have been used so often, and had so many things spilt on them, that you could probably survive a week just by licking them. I still use them regularly, as my sister is still vegetarian.
The Covent Garden Soup Company recipe book
Like the ring-binder and wipe-clean pages; deplore the lack of an index. But the recipes are mostly fabulous anyway. Our copy has an interesting array of paper-clips/post-it notes sprouting from its upper edge.
The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner - Annabel Karmel
OK, we're into specialist territory here I admit; but for those struggling to feed a baby with healthy meals this is a goldmine.
Larousse Gastronomique - Prosper Montagne
The serious foody bible - great for browsing, but the recipes are often a bit hit and miss and require a clasical training to understand at times. They are also wildly extravagant, often turning on phrases like "three days before serving, make a stock out of 15lbs of wild venison and 30lbs or freshly picked vegetables..." or "take the yolks of 12 eggs..." Makes good reading outside the kitchen, though.
Anything by Heston Blumenthal
Probably magnificent if you're a brilliant cook to start with and can fathom what he's on about, but a path to dismal failure for the likes of me. I love his cooking - I've eaten once at the Hind's Head in Bray and it was one of the best meals I've ever had. It's just that his recipes are over my head - attempt them without being able to judge by eye when, for example, clarified butter is hot enough and you're sunk.
Gordon ****ing Ramsay.
Someone bought us a Gordon Ramsay book as a present. We tried one recipe. It was a disaster. As with Mr Blumenthal, this may be as much down to my native incompetence as Ramsay's impossibility, but the fact remains it was a mistake I won't be repeating.