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Ken Follett – The Pillars of the Earth

May 30, 2011

67. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)

Length: 992 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 12 May 2011
Finished: 20 May 2011

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? ??? (translation: I don’t remember how this one wound up on the wishlist.)
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 August 2008.

The tale of building
a big ol’ church requires
a big ol’ book too.

Summary: In The Pillars of the Earth, England during the Anarchy – the nineteen years (starting in 1135) of civil war and disputed succession to the throne – is full of some very single-minded people. Tom the Builder wants nothing more than to build a grand cathedral, both to honor God by creating something magnificent, and to provide a measure of prosperity for his family. Philip, a humble monk, wants nothing more than to take the ill-managed priory of Kingsbridge and turn it into a thriving monastery and community again. Waleran Bigod wants nothing more than personal power, preferably in the form of an archbishopric. When the lives of these men intersect, not only individual fortunes but whole buildings and communities will rise and fall on the outcome.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth and I wound up having a very strange relationship. While I didn’t ever dislike it enough to stop reading it, neither did I ever really get into it enough to be motivated to keep reading it. For shorter books, that kind of ambivalence can usually be powered through, but when you’ve battled your way to page 500 and realize that you still have to motivate yourself to slog through another 500 pages, it’s a bit more problematic… and that’s the situation I found myself in with this book.

But, I did want to know how the story ended, so: I cheated. From the halfway point on, I skipped any part where the characters were rambling on about architecture, battles, drawn-out scheming or politics, and all the times when Follett felt it necessary to text the subtext of conversations that had just happened, and covered the last half of the book in a fraction of the time it took me to get through the first half. And I do not regret that decision one bit. I did enjoy reading about a period of British history that I hadn’t previously encountered, and it was a good story with interesting characters. It was just a good story that could have been told equally well (if not better) in half the space. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Hmmm, hard to say. Lots of people love it just fine, so it’s probably worth a try for historical fiction fans – but if it’s not grabbing you early on, don’t expect the pace to pick up after you’ve put in a few hundred pages of effort.

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First Line: The small boys came early to the hanging.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2011 7:14 am

    I’m about 280 pages into this book and so far, I agree with what your review said. I’m enjoying it, in fact parts are gripping. However sometimes it feels like I’ve read loads, but when I look at how much is left to read, I’m still only about a quarter of the way through which is really disheartening!

    Well done for making it to the end of this book (I hope I can)!

    • May 30, 2011 9:53 am

      Spangle – You can do it! I believe in you!

      Maybe we should set up a TPotE support group/cheering section? :)

      • May 30, 2011 10:00 am

        That doesn’t sound like a bad idea! :-)

  2. May 30, 2011 9:02 am

    I know several people who love this book so much that they’ve read it more than once. I started it once, and got interrupted so I never finished it — not because I wasn’t enjoying it. It’s been on my reading list for a while — I’m determined to read it some day.


    • May 30, 2011 9:54 am

      Annette – Well, the story takes place over decades, so I don’t see why the reading can’t take place over years. :)

  3. May 30, 2011 12:43 pm

    I’m impressed that you tackled this one. Somehow, I don’t think it’s for me.

    • June 6, 2011 9:46 am

      Kathy – It’s a *lot*, particularly if you’re not a historical fiction buff.

  4. May 30, 2011 1:04 pm

    I took this off my list because my coworker loved it. She likes very grim depressing miserable loooooooong books, with medieval settings, which is the opposite of what I generally like, and furthermore I wasn’t even able to make it halfway through one episode of the recent miniseries of the book. So I suspect the book would not interest me in any way.

    • June 6, 2011 9:48 am

      Jenny – Ultimately, it’s not grim depressing miserable, but for a lot of the intervening pages, it is… and I hear you on the miniseries. It’s got so many actors I like, but I finished the first ep and was like “yeah, that’ll do.”

  5. May 30, 2011 3:50 pm

    THIS was the book you were talking about on twitter?! Yikes! I have this one in my tbr pile too. Don’t ask me why.

    • June 6, 2011 9:48 am

      heidenkind – Maybe you’ll be one of the people who love it; there’s certainly a lot of them out there.

  6. May 30, 2011 7:30 pm

    It’s been years since I read this book but I remember liking it well enough. I do agree though that there needs to be quite a bit to keep your interest when it comes to such a long book.

    • June 6, 2011 9:50 am

      Lola – I don’t have a problem with chunksters per se, but you’re right, a book needs to be able to justify its length when it’s this fat.

  7. June 1, 2011 7:49 am

    Sorry you didn’t like it. :( i know the plot of the book from watching the tv miniseries off netflix, and there’s actually a board game that I’ve played a few times. so I think i could tackle this one no prob, if only because I already know everything that happens!

    • June 6, 2011 9:50 am

      Redhead – I think that would have actually worked against me; the only thing that pulled me through to the end was wanting to find out what happens. :)

  8. June 1, 2011 11:53 am

    I have this one on my shelf and I do like long books like this but I really have to be in the right mood. That mood hasn’t struck me in a while so it remains on the shelf for now.

    • June 6, 2011 9:51 am

      Alyce – I definitely do have to be in the mood for chunksters; I thought I was in this case, but maybe just not in the mood for *this* chunkster. :)

  9. June 7, 2011 2:02 am

    It’s sitting on my TBR pile, but I’ve been afraid of it exactly because of this. I love historical fiction, and the details, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Mmm…

    • June 9, 2011 9:29 am

      Kay – Well, the good news is that if it doesn’t work for you, I give you my full blessing to give it up without slogging through the rest.


  1. the Little Red Reviewer

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