In my quest to read 100 books by 40, I have learned that the 30’s are the land of 1000-page books. Between Middlemarch, David Copperfield, and Pillars of the Earth, I feel like each book is taking weeks. I feel that way, because they are. When I download them on my Kindle or pick them up at the library, I find myself groaning at the size of them.
My original intent was to write two separate entries for Middlemarch and Pillars of the Earth. Since I was reading them simultaneously, I was inadvertently comparing them. Both are epic in scope, covering large swaths of time. With Middlemarch set in 19th century England, and Pillars of the Earth set in The Middle Ages, both are narrating an existence that I find remote. Both books are around 1000 pages.
That’s were the similarities end. Some have suggested that Middlemarch is the best novel written in the English language. Pillars of the Earth? Not so much. Pillars of the Earth seemed like a children’s book by comparison. George Eliot carefully crafted characters full of good intentions who all fall victim to their own limited perspectives, experiences, and unacknowledged expectations. She does an incredible job of describing the space between expectations and reality being the canyon that separates a person’s happiness from disappointment in marriage and relationships.
After reading that paragraph, you might think that I enjoyed Middlemarch. I did not. I was scratching my head over Middlemarch‘s reputation through the first half of the book. Clearly, Eliot is a master of the craft of writing gorgeous sentences and paragraphs, but I didn’t really connect with the characters until the last half of the book.
*******Minor Spoiler Alert********
The thing that hooked me was the troubled marriage of Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. The way Eliot describes how their relationship decends into dysfunction is stunningly relevant. I think she’s summarized why marriages dissolve for the last two centuries. Eliot’s observations on how we relate to each other is timeless. This discovery made wading through the first half of the book worth it.
Pillars of the Earth then. Ken Follett has a thing for cathedral architecture. He spends many paragraphs talking about building methodology, and cathedral parts like tranceps, celestories, naves, ect. I enjoyed none of that. Not only are his descriptions difficult for me to visualize, but I simply don’t give a shit about cathedrals. Sorry about it, Europe.
On top of this, Follett’s characters are as shallow as kiddie pools in comparison to Eliot’s. I finished the book at a bar. The patron next to me said reading the book was on his bucket list. Thinking that a literary perspective on Pillars of the Earth might make me more positive about the book, I inquired why it was on his bucket list. He proceeded to say that it was important. I asked in what way. I legitimately wanted to hear some explanation for why the book is great. I realized too late that he was manswering. (Manswer – when a man presents something as fact that he’s only deduced or has limited to no knowledge of. This habit seems to come on the dad gene.) I accidentally backed him into a corner where he had to admit that he didn’t know why the book was important. I immediately felt bad for making things awkward.
I do have a new appreciation for inherent political instability of The Middle Ages. But even in this respect Pillars of the Earth holds up poorly against Middlemarch. Eliot had the benefit of writing in the time she lived, so her descriptions of the political environment and social class as actors on the characters resonates where Follett falls flat.
Net Middlemarch, yes. Pillars of the Earth, no.
In closing, here’s some stellar quotes from Middlemarch.
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts―not to hurt others…
I am not magnanimous enough to like people who speak to me without seeming to see me…
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self–never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dimsighted.