If you have been following along, in 2020 I am attempting to read 100 books. I am also going to blog each book. Hence the 2/100 in the title of this post. Book #2 was another “hmm, that looks interesting and it has the added benefit of being short” library grab. And as I often enjoy, and tend to collect, short biographies or histories of people, place and ideas Notre Dame by Ken Follett fit the bill.
But it turned out to basically be a short essay exploring the history of the cathedral in the aftermath of the great fire in 2019 via historical touch points or vignettes. It is a sort of explanation of why the famous cathedral captured our imagination and became such a symbol. It felt, however, too short and insubstantial for anyone with knowledge of the subject. For those new to it, however, may spark interest in further reading. And proceeds from sales are donated to the restoration fund.
In this short, spellbinding book, international bestselling author Ken Follett describes the emotions that gripped him when he learned about the fire that threatened to destroy one of the greatest cathedrals in the world–the Notre-Dame de Paris. Follett then tells the story of the cathedral, from its construction to the role it has played across time and history, and he reveals the influence that the Notre-Dame had upon cathedrals around the world and on the writing of one of Follett’s most famous and beloved novels, The Pillars of the Earth.
I suppose we should give marketing a break but “spellbinding” is a bit much. It is an interesting essay if you have an interest in the famous cathedral and/or the author but if you want to give the restoration fund there are easier ways to do so than buy a book that would be better off as a series of blog posts. The Smithsonian Magazine has a taste.
But on the other hand, if you enjoy this sort of thing, grab a short fast read that illuminates some key historical/literary vignettes that brought us to the that fateful day when the fire started.
Plus, the critics or professionals seem to disagree with me:
In this slender essay, he connects the events of 2019 to the building of Notre-Dame over a century, beginning in 1163. It was, he writes, the equivalent of a space launch today, benefiting whole segments of the society and economy and yielding tremendous technological advances. However, he writes, “when you add up all the pragmatic reasons, they’re not quite enough to explain why we did it.” Indeed, generations of builders would die before the cathedral was finished in 1345, yet they threw themselves into the godly work. The proceeds from this book, which touches on such things as Victor Hugo’s novelistic celebration of Notre-Dame and Charles De Gaulle’s celebrated Te Deum there on the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation, are being earmarked for the restoration, another space launch–worthy mustering of our better angels.
Fans of Follett and cathedrals alike will enjoy his exploration of the great Parisian edifice—and will want more.
Follett, whose novel The Pillars of the Earthconcerns the building of a medieval cathedral, brings his expert scene building to these snippets of Notre Dame’s history. He packs a great deal into a short space, emphasizing that, starting as a Romanesque structure and ending with current post-fire rebuilding efforts, Notre Dame has never been a church unaltered; instead, the monument has been reinvented many times during its long history. Follett’s appreciative tribute provides comfort that the scars of the recent fire will pass, as well. This satisfying book will be a must-read for those interested in the rebuilding of Notre Dame.
Perhaps, The New York Journal of Books sums it up best:
Expecting Follett in this little book to live up to the promise of his subtitle is simply expecting too much. For the love of Notre-Dame, this is the book you want. For an understanding of Notre-Dame, look elsewhere.