Recent Reads: A Canticle for Leibowitz

This novel begins with the discovery of holy relics, which makes it worth recounting the way in which the book came into my possession. Last summer we took a beach vacation with my parents. The rental house anticipated rainy days with puzzles, games, and a motley assortment of books. Amid the dated spy novels, paperback romances, and one hilariously misplaced guide to freshwater fishing, the unusual title A Canticle for Leibowitz stood out to my eyes. It felt ready to disintigrate in my hands like an ancient manuscript; the yellowed pages smelled like a basement and the front cover was half torn off.

“Oh, I read that book many years ago,” said my dad. “Very 1950s with the nuclear apocalypse theme, but interesting sci-fi.”

It piqued my interest, but at the time I was engrossed in the final Maddaddam novel, so my Laddie snatched up Canticle immediately, reading it on the screened-in porch in the humid dawns. He hadn’t finished it by the week’s end, and I still wanted to read it. So, much like the “bookleggers” described in the novel, we smuggled it home.

Canticle won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel. Author Walter M. Miller fought in World War II and participated in the bombing of a monastery, which probably inspired his tale of post-apocalyptic monks. The story begins in the aftermath of nuclear war and leaps across centuries. Such a scale doesn’t allow much investment in characters. I admit to feeling unusually detached as I read, an observer watching events from on high like the book’s ever-present motif buzzards.

But in return for this detachment, we get a sweeping view of civilization’s repeated decline and fall. People violently reject learning and return to barbarism; a renaissance reintroduces technology; Church and state clash over ethics and ownership of knowledge in the face of cyclical madness. I felt like I was watching the whole thing through a window and wanted to bang on the glass, yelling “Stop! Don’t you realize you’re destroying yourselves again?” But my warning, like the lessons of human history, would go unheeded.

Overall, Canticle has aged more gracefully than some other sci-fi classics I’ve read. Certainly not a breezy read, but worth the effort. Fair warning: it might make you despair for the future of the human race. However, if you’re a science fiction fan, you probably do that anyway!

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