page.483; the pillars of the earth.
2010 August 22 § 5 Comments
In my journey to devour more books, I have made it a personal goal to broaden my reading material and choice of leisure texts. My first tangible effort towards that was an attempt to pick up a nonfiction title. Freakonomics was unexpectedly intriguing; I read through the book in two days, and re-read certain parts again simply for the pleasure of it.
My second tangible effort began last week, during a respite from studying. I was trying to decide what books to borrow from the library. The Invisible Gorilla was already on hold in two different library systems, and I didn’t have any particular recommendations in recent weeks, so I decided to dive into bestseller lists and Google.
A Google-search for “best historical fiction” and “historical fiction bestsellers” led me to some great lists, including this one, which sorts a bunch of historical fiction novels by period! And of course, I do regularly clock into the New York Times’ Bestseller lists. A common title between all three were The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet – a book I had purchased on impulse some three or four years ago, after seeing it on NYTimes’ bestseller list.
This time, I decided to grab the copy (all 962 pages of it) on my trip up to San Francisco, to see if I couldn’t actually make some real headway with it this time. With some trepidation, I opened to the author’s preface, the only part I had finished last time.
Some 36 hours after reading the prologue’s first sentence, I find myself halfway through The Pillars of the Earth. It’s so fantastic, I wanted to share a short summary (that absolutely will not do it justice!) here.
From the back of the novel:
The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, a devout and resourceful monk driven to build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has every known… Of Tom, the mason who becomes his architect – a man divided in his soul… Of the beautiful, elusive Lady Aliena, haunted by a secret shame… And of a struggle between good and evil that wil turn church against state, and brother against brother.
A spellbinding epic tale of ambition, anarchy, and absolute power set against the sprawling medieval canvas of twelfth-century England, this is Ken Follett’s historical masterpiece.
Although I’m a huge fan of historical fiction of any kind, I’m usually wary about reading books where I don’t know anything about the context, history, or culture of the novel’s setting, which is often so fundamental to really being able to catch all of the nuances and brilliance of a historical fiction novel.
My complete lack of knowledge in the historical context of England in the 1200s was only a slight impediment in my reading of the story. The author didn’t try to slam down an entire chapter of history, politics, culture, and geographic know-how down my throat in his first chapter; instead, he first introduced one of his major characters, Tom Builder. Through Tom’s struggles, you get a feeling for the landscape and harshness of the life of a wandering tradesman; you see poverty, and its very real human consequences in a parent’s worry for his family, a desperation as the seasons change, and the dangers of being a traveler when banditry and thievery on the roads between villages, towns, and cities is not a simple matter of driving past at xxmph.
Then he introduced Prior Philip, a monk who is religious in deed, as well as in word and thought. He doesn’t struggle with the expected conflict of celibacy in serving God as a monk – and instead, he must reconcile his own beliefs about the goodness of people (especially those who also claim to serve God) with the reality of human nature on earth.
The entire first quarter of the book seems like a series of unconnected events, but with subtle weaving, Follett brings all of the stories of the various major characters together, linking the people inexorably that leaves you guessing at what might happen next in the story. His characters come alive in the page – Follett doesn’t tell us what they’re like, so much as he shows us gradually, as the story progresses. He also manages to tie the story of people, with the story of the country. Politics, kingdoms, and wars aren’t dry facts and a matter of such battle in this month – they’re petitions and meetings, discussion and plotting, the context and tapestry by which our characters’ lives get entangled and involved in.
I didn’t think I would enjoy a book about the building of a church. But a historical fiction novel that leaves you wanting to learn more about “what really happened” is something special, and The Pillars of the Earth is nothing if not that.
Even if you have no interest in architecture, in English history, or the conflict of secular life and religion, I would recommend giving this book a try. For me, it was a fascination from the first page.