Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth
by Ken Follett

Transitioning from one book to another is never an easy exercise. Some people let a few days go by between books. Let it stew. Ruminate on it a little. I don't. I insist on starting a new book on the same day I finish my previous book (and I never, ever read two books at the same time). Some people think that's crazy. Sometimes I agree, but it's what I've done for so long, there's no real way for me to break the habit.

Transitions can often be quite smooth, especially if the previous book was simply terrible. Moving from The Shack by William P. Young to Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, for example, was a slice of heaven. I'm was so happy to be back in a good book that I began devouring it. As well, it could be a book that I have been anticipating for quite some time (like Keith Richard's Life) and I'm just in a hurry to get things started. These transtitions are easy.

But sometimes transtitions are difficult, especially after having read an extremely good book. Leaving behind a great read such as Replay by Ken Grimwood and starting up something entirely unknown is heart-wrenching. You're leaving behind characters you have come to love and understand. Like any break-up, you're not entirely sure you can go on without them right away. Perhaps you need a little time on your own to rest, meditate and catch up on some television. You just couldn't possibly care about any other characters right now. I have to ease into books slowly when this occurs.

This happened to me last year while making my way through The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. I was determined not to read all three in succession, so I broke the series up with two books in between. When I finished the first book, it took all my energy to stick to my austere program. As luck would have it, I picked up Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell and enjoyed it immensely ( I love me some medieval history). It was the proverbial slice of cheddar between sips of red at a wine tasting. With my pallette cleansed, I dove into The Girl Who Played With Fire. No problem.

It was between The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest that I made a critical error. Cheekily, I picked up G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. I should have taken this selection far more seriously. Chesterton is torturous reading when you know you have the finale of something you care about sitting on the shelf 10 feet away. I crept through the book. The only thing pushing me on was the promise of a better book at the end. Not the best attitude to have while reading. I have promised myself to give G.K. Chesterton another chance.

This is not exactly what happened with Pillars of the Earth. I had just come out of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and I had had just about enough of that one, so I was ready for something new. But there is a little of the 10 year-old reader in me and when I saw the 983 page opus sitting on the shelf, I got intimidated. That's a lot of pages to slog through if I don't like it. And I haven't given up on a book in four years. My first few days in Pillars of the Earth were very tentative. I wasn't really ready to settle into such a large book and I wasn't giving it much of a chance. I usually get a kick out of watching my bookmark move its way through a novel, but with Ken Follett it doesn't ever seem to move! I waited and waited for Follett to make me care.

I had this same problem with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, but for slightly different reasons. I was given Cloud Atlas by two people within a month and told to drop all other books and read it immediately, which I did. Two people who seprated by the Pacific who don't know each other insisting I read something is a fairly ringing endorsement. The first two chapters (before I realized what Mitchell was doing and subsequently fell head over heels in love with the book) made me feel like I was being cheated. I read the bare minimum (25 pages a day) for days and grumbled how both a friend and a relative could be so terribly wrong about a book. I was never going to finish this brick.

But there comes a point in these sorts of books when it begins to click. The characters seep into your subconcious and you need to get back in there, see how things progress. In Cloud Atlas, it was the third chapter. In Pillars of the Earth it was the burning of the church. From that point on, you know things are going to be ok. It doesn't matter if the book is 183 pages or 1183 pages, you're hooked. The bookmark makes steady progress and by the time you finish, you agonize about your next book.

Can it possibly compare to this one?


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