The Pillars of the Earth

I cleared the decks for this thing. One book, about 1,000 pages – complete focus. I’ve had good experiences with Ken Follett. Triple was one of the earliest thrillers that I recall reading. I read it back in the mid 1980’s and enjoyed it, then I read it again about five years ago. I didn’t enjoy it as much the second time around but still thought it a solid thriller. I’ve read a few other Follett books and I’ve always considered myself a fan, but I’ve never felt compelled to read ’em all.

But in the last few months or so, I’ve heard a lot of people talking very favorably about The Pillars of the Earth – people I know and trust. Additionally, especially with the Oprah publicity, it seems to be popping up in the front of bookstores a lot lately. Which is odd because it was first published in 1989 and I could have sworn that this thing spent years in the discounted section. In fact, I actually think I owned this book in hardcover sometime in the 1990’s, but gave it away without reading it. This longevity made me curious, so I grabbed it in January with a Christmas gift card from Borders.

Let me go off topic a little right now. For some reason, I like English period pieces. Earl this, lord that … kings, queens, bloodlines … Elizabeth Bennet, Queen Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett. It makes for a good story or two. In fact, as long I’m being forthright, I will admit that every Sunday this winter I’ve been watching the Complete Jane Austen on PBS with my wife. I’m just saying … try it.

So these forces aligned and I devoted my singular focus to reading The Pillars … starting on March 1st.

It lived up to expectations. To use phrases from reviewers (and the book jacket); it’s a “sweeping epic” of “gripping readability” with “majesty and power.” I’ll tell you, it didn’t disappoint.

Not to keep going off topic, but this type of book makes you understand why we read. I spent 20 hours during the first few weeks of March reading this thing and it struck me that there is no competition in the entertainment world for books like this. There is no movie, TV show, play, game, opera, podcast, radio program, song, or sporting event that combines such an engaging experience with such a high level of convenience. A good book stirs your emotions as much as any of these mediums but comes with much less baggage. You don’t need much electricity. It’s highly portable. It’s inexpensive (or free if you go to a library). You can do it any time, in any place, at whatever pace you choose. The book will never die. It may change in its form, but it will not go away. I digress, this booklove is material for another post. We’ll get to that.

There are five protagonists in this book and any one of them is worthy of their own book. Their names are Tom, Ellen, Philip, Jack, and Aliena. Follett combined and intertwined their fictional stories with some historical fiction from 12th century England. Follett uses the friction between church and state as the backdrop. In fact, this book spans a period almost identical to the life of Saint Thomas Becket, who figured prominently in the often bloody battles between (and within) the Catholic Church and English royalty.

But it wasn’t only an apparent fascination with 12th century history driving this work, it was Follett’s love for cathedrals, castles, and stonework in general that provided most of the back-story. He has a touching forward (in the edition I read) and it’s clear that this book was truly a labor of love. He loves writing and he loves touring cathedrals, and it’s fitting that this labor of love is finally yielding some fruit after about 19 years (copyright date is 1989).

The central part of the book is Philip’s quest to build a beautiful cathedral. All of the action and antagonism comes back to the cathedral, time and again. I’m not a big epic reader; I usually get confused or frustrated with all of the characters, times, and places. That didn’t happen here because the cathedral keeps things simple. The characters keep coming and going, and each of them partake in some act of violence, treachery, kindness, greed, or heroism. But I was able to keep them straight because Follett tethered everything to Philip’s quest to build the cathedral. It was also helpful that Follett used the reflective nature of Philip’s thoughts to review and realign things.

It was a very fast and enjoyable 1,000 page read and I look forward to reading the sequel sometime over the next few years.