Pillars of the Earth: Flips Flipping Pages October book discussion

I was dragging my feet about reading this month’s selection, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (henceforth to be referred to as POTE), primarily because I didn’t expect to like it. I first mooched a copy of the book when Patti, one of my BookMoochers Pilipinas friends proclaimed it as her all-time favorite book and my curiosity was piqued, but I had the book languishing in my TBR for over a year until I lost my first copy in last year’s flood. I got a replacement a several months later, but I have to admit that if it wasn’t assigned for the book discussion, I wouldn’t have picked it up.

I’m not one to shy away from chunksters, but given the length of the book (973 pages), I started POTE one week before the discussion, figuring I’d have to read around 200 pages a day. I read the first chapter late Thursday night, and finished a few more chapters on Friday night.

On Saturday, I read the book after breakfast and on to the afternoon. I had planned to go to a friend’s bookshop opening that night, but it rained heavily and I got stuck at home because the street was flooded, and all my plans went awry. I figured I might as well make a dent in the novel (I was waiting for the street to clear out, but it didn’t until late that night), and I was reading and reading, and before I knew it, I had finished 900 pages — right up to the end of the book!

I hope you’ll indulge the lengthy post; it’s possible this book may be my best book for 2010 and I want to share the experience with you. Don’t worry, no spoilers!
Here’s what my FB feed looked like while I was reading the book:

(trans. I’m taking a break, I’m getting too affected [by the story])

POTE is a medieval tale that narrates the construction of the (fictional) Kingsbridge Cathedral, and the key figures involved in its construction:  stonemason Tom Builder and his family; the monk Philip of Gwynned; the ravishing Ellen and her son Jack; the arrogant William Hamleigh and his ex-fiancee, the beautiful Aliena; and the sinister clergyman Waleran Bigod.

And let me get to my main point: I loved every bit of Pillars of the Earth.

First of all, it’s hard not to find an aspect of the novel that will interest any reader. This sweeping saga is a rich, multi-layered tale that has a lot of elements that can appeal to a variety of readers: history, politics, romance, architecture, wars, religion, monastic life and discipline, family dynamics, business, humor, and many more. The variety of themes  that are deftly woven into the story arch sustains the interest of the reader.

Second, the characters are written in such a way that it’s difficult not to get affected by them. This book is full of characters to love, characters to hate, and characters you’ll love to hate — they’re all fleshed out so well that you can’t just passively read the story. I know I didn’t — throughout the book,  I laughed, cried, jammed my fist into my mouth, seethed in rage and indignation, pumped my fists in triumph, and clapped in delight. I admired Tom Builder’s passion, applauded Philip’s moral fiber, marveled at Ellen’s courage, and liked Jack’s fierce determination. I also hated the utterly despicable William Hamleigh and his random acts of violence, the sly Waleran and his quietly manipulative schemes, and even bratty Richard and the way he mooched off Aliena!

Next, it’s really just so entertaining! After the foundation for the story is laid out in the expository chapters, the action just keeps building in a steady cycle. This is why I just kept on reading and reading — I just couldn’t put it down. Every time I thought about closing the book and giving myself a break, I just couldn’t wait to see what would happen next! And before I knew it, I had devoured the whole book in one (marathon!) sitting!

And finally, I like how it pulled a fast one on me. I didn’t expect to like this book because I had preconceived biases against it (ergo yes, I judge books by their covers!). 1) It’s a medieval novel, and I’m not fond of that period in history (give me Rennaissance anytime!); 2) I’ve never had the interest to read Ken Follett, as he is published primarily in the mass market format (I hate mass market paperbacks!); 3) It’s an Oprah’s book club pick (which often makes me run in the opposite direction)! Well, I read it, got hooked, and all those biases were just thrown out the window!

I was lucky to have a copy of David Macaulay’s Caldecott Honor book, Cathedral, which made an excellent companion book to POTE. It’s one of the few non-fiction picture books in my collection (found it at Book Sale for P40!). It illustrates the step by step construction of a (fictitious) Gothic cathedral in the imaginary French town of Chutreax in the Middle Ages. It explains everything from all the craftsmen involved in the project and their specific job descriptions; tools used in the workshop; parts of a cathedral, logging and quarrying, laying the foundations, building the structure, glassmaking, bellmaking, and other embellishments.

You can preview Cathedral on Google Books.

Like some other Flippers, I was excited for the POTE book discussion because I enjoyed the book so much.

We started off the day with a tour of the San Sebastian Church. Completed in 1891 from pre-fabricated materials shipped from Belgium, this gothic  revival basilica is the first all-steel structure in Asia, constructed to replace the original San Sebastian church structures destroyed by fire and earthquakes in 1611, 1859, and 1863. Design is credited to Genaro Palacios (although there are yet-unsubstantiated claims that link Gustav Eiffel to the church), while the interiors were painted to look like marble by Filipino artist Lorenzo Rocha and his apprentices.

Senior Conservator Tina Paterno gave us the tour, and talked about the conservation efforts for the church, which is sadly (and alarmingly) in need of restoration. They are currently in the process of assessing the extent of damage on the church and securing funding for the restoration. The church is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen, and I do hope it can be restored to its former glory.

After a late lunch, we cozied up at a coffeeshop for the discussion. It was one of our most spirited discussions; we talked about how we found the book (it was a big hit!) and our experience reading it, our favorite characters and our favorite moments in the book, medieval hygiene (and how we couldn’t imagine taking a bath once a month (for girls) and twice a year (for guys), how the book became an Oprah’s book club selection (snicker snicker), and the highlight of our day: casting local actors in an imaginary telenovela (soap opera) adaptation of Pillars of the Earth!

We’ve been doing face to face book discussions at Flips Flipping Pages for over two years now, and I really love how the monthly meetings allow me to discover books I wouldn’t normally read and find that I actually enjoy them. It’s been both a challenging and rewarding experience, and I know I’ll always look forward to reading more books with the rest of the Flippers!

Up next for November: Grahame Greene’s The End of the Affair!


Pillars of the Earth, softbound deluxe edition, 5/5 stars

Cathedral, hardcover, 5/5 stars

Books #137-138 for 2010

Book #4 for the Chunkster Challenge


17 thoughts on “Pillars of the Earth: Flips Flipping Pages October book discussion”

  1. I read this book and loved it also. What’s different is that I expected to love it as I love all historical eras. There is another sort of follow up novel. I don’t remember the title now but it has a few of the original characters from this novel. I bet you will like that too.

  2. I skipped reading the entry altogether because I’m currently reading this, as well. I haven’t reached the halfway mark yet but I must say I’m getting a lot less sleep lately because of this book. I’m so intrigued by the characters! I want to finish it already so I can move on to “World Without End”. :)

    1. Fun, huh? :) Sayang, you just missed the FFP discussion…. But I want to read World Without End, I’ll see if I can round up enough fans for an impromptu discussion

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