Ken Follett, World Without End

Stupid book club - what am I doing reading a thousand-page blockbuster romance that's NOT by Neal Stephenson? Yep, Ken Follett's World Without End, the sequel to his 1989 classic doorstop Pillars of the Earth (another book I haven't read), is our January pick, and it's eaten up a lot of time recently. But I'm teasing: I got into this club to read what other people want to read, and I'm delighted to keep doing that.

Capsule review: four children see a terrifying thing happen, and we spend roughly four years (separated by a decade each time) in the children's company as we see them live out over the next 30-plus years the characters they showed at this initial moment. They don't change, at all. No one does in the whole book. There's buckets of action and passion and romance and violence and all that, lots to draw you in and get excited about, but there's zero psychological development. My own hobbyhorses (sense of place, environmental concern, nuanced depiction of social and family relations) aren't fulfilled in the least, but I had a mostly good time with this book.

You do have to lose yourself in it a bit to get much out of it, though, and that wasn't always easy given the large volume of cardboard and predictability here. Doug, I'm worried you might fall asleep with this one....

On the positive side, it reminded me of my brief but passionate obsession with historical novelist Thomas B. Costain, back in my early teens. I only read one of his histories and about half of his novels, but I found it terrifically exciting stuff, especially The Silver Chalice (a novel of the Grail myth, heavy on the role played by Joseph of Arimathea, if memory serves), The Tontine (a novel of French society: a tontine is a group insurance policy, with the survivor taking it all - yes, there was indeed a Simpsons episode about one among Grandpa's army unit), and Below the Salt (a contemporary man trying to figure out family history uncovers the true story of the Magna Carta - I think is how it went....). I loved those books - I loved how it felt to get caught up in reading, just in the act itself of reading, and part of that excitement's behind what I'm getting at when I teach and research.

And somewhere I've got a copy of Agnes Laut's 1902 Heralds of Empire, which follows Groseillers and Radisson in their peregrinations. A fun book as well, when I was a kid, but I have a feeling the politics of it won't stand up too well!

So thanks, Ken Follett, for reminding me of that particular pre-teen fascination. It's been a long time since I thought of Thomas B. Costain - or Wanda Wright, for that matter, the girl I was crushing on when I was 12, but maybe that's a story best kept for another time....


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