September 2020

Shelf Life with Ken Follett: A home full of books

Interview by
“My own library at home is not big enough for all my books, so the whole house has effectively become a library.”
Share this Article:

It’s been 30 years since the publication of The Pillars of the Earth, Welsh author Ken Follett’s enormously beloved novel about the building of a Gothic cathedral, and the publication of its highly anticipated prequel, The Evening and the Morning, is cause for much fanfare. Set at the end of the Dark Ages, the nearly 500 years of incredibly slow progress that came after the fall of the Roman Empire, it follows three figures during this period of immense change. It’s a hefty, expansive epic worthy of deep reading by history fans. To celebrate this momentous release, we reached out to Follett to learn more about his literary life.

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child.
I’d say that the first big thrill of my life was joining Canton Library in Cardiff at age 7. Canton Library—found on Library Street—is an absolutely stunning building. The philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated the money for the library, around £5,000 at the time, and it was built on the site of an old market. Carnegie, a Scottish American industrialist, gave away a huge proportion of his fortune, funding more than 650 libraries in the U.K., plus more than 1,500 in America. Undoubtedly, he transformed lives. Canton Library certainly changed mine.

What is on your “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet?
The Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. It’s architecturally stunning and contains 40 million items.

While researching your books, has there ever been a surprisingly relevant discovery among the stacks?
When I wrote Eye of the Needle in 1977, I had never been to Scotland, but half the book is set there. However, I could not afford to go on a research trip. The public library in Farnborough, Surrey, had a touring guide to Scotland, which was helpful for a special reason: It was out of date, having been published 30 years earlier—which was perfect for me, because the story is set during the Second World War.

How is your personal library organized?
My own library at home is not big enough for all my books, so the whole house has effectively become a library. I’ve arranged novels alphabetically by author and history books chronologically by subject. This makes everything easy to find. But I periodically run out of space.

What’s the last thing you checked out from your local library or bought at a bookstore?
I haven’t been to a bookstore since March, for obvious reasons, but the last thing I bought was The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English [published in the U.S. under the title The Storied City].

When you enter a bookstore, where do you go first?
The bestsellers table. I want to see who is doing well.

What is your ideal bookstore-­browsing snack?
I’m afraid I think it’s bad manners to eat while browsing. Sorry.

Bookstore cats or dogs?
I’m a dogs man.


Author photo © Olivier Favre

Get the Book

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!