Being without work these past few weeks, I’ve had more time than usual to read. Last weekend, I finished Walter M. Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, a book recommended to me by three of the smartest men I know. Set in post-apocalyptic America in the centuries following a nuclear holocaust, it tells the story of the monks of the Albertine Order of Leibowitz, who scratch their livelihood from the rocks and dust of the southwestern deserts and dedicate themselves to their founder’s mission of extracting knowledge from the rubble of the previous civilization and preserving it for the future.
The fictional account of the order’s founder, Blessed Isaac Leibowitz, paints a clearer picture of the world after nuclear war. Leibowitz, it is said, was a 20th-century scientist or engineer. Following the nuclear conflict that destroyed most of the world’s population and infrastructure, ravaged the survivors, and caused terrible mutations among the children and creatures born afterward, scientists and academics become the scapegoats of the mob. Anti-intellectualism abounds, books and papers are burned, and scientists, lynched. Leibowitz seeks sanctuary in a Cistercian monastery, where he professes religious vows. Later he starts a new order, named for St. Albert the Great—an order of “bookleggers” and memorizers who secretly gather and preserve past knowledge, hoping for a new renaissance. Ultimately his identity is discovered by the mob, and Leibowitz, too, is killed.
The book is divided into three sections, corresponding to different points in the redevelopment of human civilization: roughly, the new Dark Ages, the beginning of a new Enlightenment, and a new Atomic Age. It is very much a sci-fi/fantasy novel, but steeped in Catholicism, Latin, and dark humor. I am tempted to compare it to Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s novel The Lord of the World, which I reviewed earlier this summer: both are dystopian; both feature a diminished but devout Church struggling to save the world in the face of a culture that has little use for the Catholic faith and appears not to desire saving. But while I found A Canticle for Leibowitz to be a more entertaining read, I also found it bleaker in the end. (Neither novel ends with sunshine and daisies—if you’d like a more uplifting read that touches on some of the same ideas in its story-within-the-story, check out Myles Connolly’s short novel Mr. Blue.)
The biggest difficulty is the sheer volume of Latin in the book, which required me to keep my smart phone within reach while reading. Fortunately, Wikipedia maintains a page of Latin phrases and translations from A Canticle for Leibowitz, making it much easier to follow. Parts of the story—particularly the manifestations of certain Old and New Testament figures in the context of the story—may leave you searching for deeper meaning. I will be pondering aspects of this book for many weeks, I am sure. Recommended!