A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This review brought to you by: Indie Sister, the same girl responsible for my reading Neil Gaiman.  I am always wary of Indie Sister’s book suggestions.  Sometimes she says to read things like Coin-Locker Babies, which gave me terrible underwater nightmares, and which I have really tried hard to forget completely; and sometimes she says to read Neil Gaiman and gives me a massive huge new source of happiness.

I checked out A Canticle for Leibowitz a month ago, and I only finished it last night.  I kept putting it off.  I’m not the hugest fan of science fiction that there has ever been.  Eventually I looked up Walter Miller on Wikipedia and discovered that a) he converted to Catholicism; and b) he struggled with mental illness his whole life before eventually committing suicide.  These things gave me much more of a fellow feeling for Walter Miller, so I decided to read his book.  And I loved it.  He killed himself before finishing a sequel to Canticle, so THANKS A LOT, MENTAL ILLNESS.

Oh, this book was so good.  Oh, I liked it so much.  I don’t want to return it to the library.  It’s set in the Southwestern United States many years after a world-wide nuclear war, following which there was a major backlash against technology and learning, which people perceived to have been the cause of the mass destruction.  Leibowitz was a Jewish clever man who converted to Catholicism, founded a monastic order, and worked really hard with the Church to save books for future generations; and he was martyred.  All this a long time ago.  The first part of the book is set before Leibowitz is canonized, and a young monk discovers relics of him; and then the second part (possibly my favorite?  I couldn’t decide) is set many years later, at the beginning of a sort of new Renaissance, and a scholar comes to the Abbey to study all the Leibowitz documents they have there; and the third part is about how everyone’s getting set to destroy the world.  Again.

This book was so, so good.  Really.  With added poignancy because Walter Miller served in the Allied forces.  And – my family made fun of me when I said this but here it is – I liked it that the Catholics weren’t all humongous jerks.  Not because I am one of those people with a bumper sticker that says “I’m thankful for the thousands of GOOD priests”.  I am not one of those people.  I want to key those people’s cars.  But because there are such a lot of bigoted, sexist, closeminded, insulting, rude Catholic priests around, and I always want Catholic priests to be nice and wry and morally upright; and it was nice to read a book in which most of them really were.

I just loved this book to pieces.  I loved how each of the parts of the book mirrored an aspect of our history – the Dark Ages and the Renaissance and the modern times – and how religion fit into each of those times.   That was neat.  All circle-of-life-y.  And I found the people in the books remarkably sympathetic, especially sweet innocent Brother Francis in the first part, all confused by how upset everyone was getting, and so sweet with the bandits and the relic – bless him.  And I liked this:

The answer was near at hand: there was still the serpent whispering: For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods.  The old father of lies was clever at telling half-truths: How shall you “know” good and evil, until you shall have sampled a little?  Taste and be as Gods.  But neither infinite power not infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men.  For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

And this:

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas.
We march in spite of Hell, we do–
Atrophy, Entropy, and Proteus vulgaris,
telling bawdy jokes about a farm girl name of Eve
and a traveling salesman called Lucifer.
We bury your dead and their reputations.
We bury you.  We are the centuries.

And this:

And the last old Hebrew sat alone on a mountain and did penance for Israel and waited for a Messiah, and waited, and waited, and–

Yup.  A Canticle for Leibowitz.  What a good book.  “We bury you.  We are the centuries.”  Wow.

  • I remember reading somewhere that this book was doing most of what The Road does years ago. That plus your review makes me really want to read it.

  • jennysbooks

    Oh, it’s so good. I particularly like the way it makes everything seem inevitable – that whole circle of life thing. Inevitable and at the same time completely, idiotically preventable. Impressive.

  • Man, I completely forgot that this book exists. It sounds absolutely spellbinding, Jenny. Thanks for the review…it’s getting sped up on the list.

  • Mumsy

    Sounds pretty good, actually. Do you own it? Can I borrow it?

  • jennysbooks

    Oh, no, or get it on paperbackswap. Or else I will. Actually, yeah, I will. Stand by.

  • Hallo from Poland. In Poland we have two translations of this book that were published in the same year by two different labels… 30 years after international debut. I read this book two years ago and I didn’t want to return it to local library too 😉 I don’t know too much about author, in Poland we have only translations of “Canticle…” and “…Wild Horse Woman”. I am completly noob in matter of his short novel. His suicide is not wide known fact in Poland. Well, frankly speaking he is not so popular in my country as f.Ex. Stephen King. But HE IS one of my MOST FAVOURITE AUTHOR of whole globe. Recently I found out and bought both books in Polish at net-shop I going to read it one more time.

    Quite interesting is music of John Kannenberg published in Internet for free (use google) that was composed and recorded by inspiration with this book. This is one of few books that makes me cry, that makes me depressed (this is my reaction, but other reader may have another, you know), that makes me think.

    I found your page by surprise, but this is always very nice to find another traveller in this world that loves the same thing (book). I think that big good movie based on this book (but none typic hollywoodish soupsupermegaproductionwithbilliondollarsstars) shall be shot at ten. I never heard if somebody tried to move it from pages into film-cliche…

    send greetings
    adam emanuel

    • I think it would be a really difficult book to adapt to film – because the separate parts are so separate. I bet it would make a good miniseries though – each part of the book could be filmed on a different night, you know? That might be neat.

  • GPS

    Consider myself a scifi fan but just found out read this book. Fascinating… The obvious parallel to Western civilization after the Roman Empire, the dark ages, the Renaissance to today retold in a future setting (with the Catholic Church being a vehicle for preserving knowledge). And yes, the eternal question to whether we are doomed to make the same mistakes, or not. 1) the book does not push or advocate religion or a particular religion, so feel free to read whatever your beliefs or spirituality. I do not believe Miller wrote this book to swell the ranks of Catholics in the world. 2) no clear cut good or bad aka Star Wars, Lord of the Rings etc… Makes the book more human to me… A writer of a lessor degree would not have even tried this. 3) the items being preserved by the monks (because that’s what they do following the end of the world) is also noteworthy… Shopping lists etc… As it turns out. That’s the part that got me the most. What do we as a society consider worth saving and possibly even hold sacred? How do we decide what is sacred and how much do we really know about it? What if it’s just someone’s shopping list or random rambling. Are you going to base a religion on that. Perhaps we have already done so? Ouch… There is a wonderful review of this book from The New Yorker magazine https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=867525949941738&id=100000530230284 that is worth checking out. Yes, I highly recommend the book.