Saturday, February 9, 2008

Pillars of the Earth

According to the author's foreward, this book was a sort of opus for Ken Follett. It was a book that took many years to get written, and then many years to get published. It was well worth every ounce of trouble that went into its making. My experience with this book has a back story.

It was fall of 1996 and I was in a bookstore in Allentown, PA on a "visiting potential colleges" trip with my dad. In typical daddy's little girl fashion, I told my dad that he should buy me a new book. Without missing a beat, he agreed, on the condition that he got to pick out the book. Always one for an adventure, I agreed, and we set out around the store. I think he knew what he was looking for, but I had no idea. He decided on Pillars, in mass market size. Now if this was not the largest hulk of a book I had ever proposed to read up to that point, I don't know what was. It was 992 pages long. And the cover was completely non-descript. Dad told me that the story followed, mainly, a mason and a priest through their lives struggle to build a beautiful cathedral, that I would learn about cathedral building and about the buildings themselves, that it was a very, very interesting and well-written book, and that he believed that it was one of the best books he had ever read. I agreed to try. And I did try. Honestly, I did. But a book that size is daunting to undertake. And when I ever opened to the first page and saw that it was set in 1123 (yes, that's the year), it was just too much for my 17 year old mind to process. Was I really expected to read a thousand page book about this foolish medieval mason and his family in the forest with no food? Really? I reached somewhere between page 50 and 100, and just gave up. I think my dad was disappointed. I put it on my shelf with all intentions of reading it. Someday. If it was one of the best books my dad had ever read, it had to have some redeeming qualities, and maybe I just wasn't seeing them right then. I pledged to try again. Someday.

Fast forward to fall of 2007. That's right, nine full years later. Shortly after getting married and having that all planning out of the way, I now read more than ever (I've got to do something with all the time I have on my hands now - it only takes so long to clean the house). I mean three to four books at a time, finishing two to three a week. Voracious, I think, is the word many people would use; "expensive" is a word that comes to my mind. I seemed to forget that libraries existed for a while there, and was buying all my books from good old Borders. I have since learned the error of my ways. But I digress. While wandering through Borders one day, I spied the relic from my past that had become The Pillars of the Earth. Only now it was published in trade size, and had a lovely cover with cathedral design sketches in the background. Plus, the larger size had decreased the page number down to only 973. I recalled my dad's description of this as one of the best books he had ever read, as well as my pledge to try again, and realized that someday had come. I restrained myself from paying something like $26 for the paperback, and figured that my old mass market copy with the plain yellow cover must still be at my parents house (this may have also been when I recalled the existence of libraries and the brilliant money-saving institutions that they are, but I'm not sure). Next time I went to my parents' house, my dad presented me with a book called World Without End. I glanced at the cover, and scanned down to the author: Ken Follett. I said "what's this about", and dad asked that now age-old question: "did you ever finish reading Pillars of the Earth? This is the sequel that came out recently." So I told him how I felt like now I was ready to read Pillars, and I had seen the trade size in the store and it looked a little more manageable, and asked if he had seen my old copy lying around their house, so I could avoid buying it. Obviously he had not. So I tore through the house looking for it, but to no avail. The bright yellow book had eluded me. For a little while I though prehaps someday had not come and I maybe was not meant to read this book after all. But finally, I resolved to read it, and asked for the pretty new edition for Christmas from my husband.

I started reading it Christmas night, and I have to admit that I still felt a bit daunted by the size. I finished by January 6th. By page 150, I no longer even noticed the size of the book, or even though that it was really all that long. I'm not kidding when I say that this is one of the best books that I have ever read. I could not put it down, and when I did get to the end, I was sad that it was over. The writing is fabulous. The character development is excellent and engaging. It takes a special author to keep a reader that engaged and interested for 973 long pages. It's set in the middle ages, which I, of all people, can understand is just not everyone's cup of tea, but you mostly stop thinking about the time period as you fall into the story. And the story - there are a fairly limited number of characters for such a long book, so you get to know each of the characters and all of their flaws and weaknesses intimately. I've heard people say that it took them about 150-200 pages to get into it, and I guess I can also understand that, but I'm telling you, once you get into it, this book is amazing. Amazing. I may even read it again.

I have yet to pick up World Without End. I can only hope that it is half as good as Pillars was. It is significantly shorter. My dad wound up loaning his copy to my uncle, and I'm trying to wait for him to get it back so I can borrow it. I may just get it from my trusty library.

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