Complementary Reading

First, an admission. One of my New Year’s reading resolutions was to stop buying new books. Less than a fortnight is how long that resolution lasted. Retrospectively, it would have been more realistic to make a resolution to just not go into an op-shop, as it is inevitable that I will cruise the book shelves of any op-shop regardless of what I actually went in to look for. I went for second-hand silverware and I left with three new (second-hand) books. In my defence, the Salvo’s were having a 3 for 2 sale, and as a friend pointed out, I was rescuing the unloved books from potential destruction. Although a quick glance at most op-shop book shelves suggests that their future would have involved simply mouldering away for the next 20 years or so. Here are the culprits:


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (I have been wanting to read this for a while, so I have convinced myself that buying this doesn’t count as breaking a resolution) and Consuelo and Alva by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.

I will endeavour to try and uphold the resolution to read the books I already have, which brings me to today’s point, which is complementary reading. I was going to put the books back on the shelf and walk away, until I spotted Consuelo and Alva, which rang a small but very particular little bell. I have been reading Lindy Woodhead’s War Paint, about the lives and rivalry of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in early to mid 20th century America. One line mentioned Consuelo Vanderbilt, who was forced by her mother Alva to marry the Duke of Marlborough. One short line was enough to catch my interest and then a few days later, there was a book all about them! It will be interesting to see if either Rubinstein or Arden rates a mention in Mackenzie Stuart’s book, but even if they don’t, I’m sure to get a different perspective on 20th century New York as the Vanderbilts were firmly enmeshed in the wealthy clique which Elizabeth Arden was so desperate to gain entry to.

War Paint also caused a rather confusing case of complementary reading, while I was still reading Gere and Vaizey’s Great Women Collectors. A section of the latter book concerns women collectors of the early 20th century, and up pops Helena Rubinstein who was a compulsive collector, particularly of African art. There are also profiles of other notables of the day including Gertrude Stein, Mary Cassatt and Coco Chanel, as well as several mentions of Misia Sert, a woman who seemed to know everyone. All these women were part of the artistic and intellectual circles which Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were on the outskirts of and for a while it became incredibly difficult to remember where I had read some fact or other. There were also a few instances of flicking through the book I wasn’t currently reading to double-check a fact or to see how the author(s) referred to a person or event. The most significant of these instances was the subtle glossing over of Coco Chanel’s activities during WWII, which some googling has revealed to be distinctly… unsavoury. On which there is a new book added to the TBR list: Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent by Hal Vaughan.

I’ve noticed that I read complementary books fairly often, which indicates that I a) can get slightly obsessive when interested in a topic and b) might need to read more widely more often (which I’ve just noticed is New Year’s resolution No. 5). In some ways though I think complementary reading can be quite beneficial. It helps to cement salient events and people in your memory (which I find incredibly helpful), and gives alternate viewpoints and interpretations of a topic, even on something as seemingly straightforward as Marie Antoinette’s life.


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