A Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1959 award-winning sci-fi book by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is the first selection for The Librarium book blog. It might seem a bit of a leap for an introductory selection, but the book, broken into three parts, strikes that odd and perfect balance of humor with an undercurrent of darkness. The edition of the book I use later in my reference to quotes with specific page numbers is this one.
First off, don’t let the classification of science fiction turn you away from the book, nor the seemingly slow beginning. What Miller manages to do with this story that spans several hundred years of post-nuclear war civilization in Southwestern United States is use symbolism and imagery to make a broad statement about the unfortunate cyclical nature of humanity. He touches on faith, government, the pursuit of knowledge and the locked nature of human nature.
I have a few questions and quotes that I wrote down while reading the book myself that I will include here as a kind of jumping-off point. There are also links to outside sources that you might want to consider. After you have read the book, please join us for discussion in the comments section of this post. Feel free to note quotes and excerpts, as well as additional questions, that you think important to include in the discussion.
- What is this book saying about faith? Is it easily misplaced? Or, even if it is, is it a necessary force against both barbarism and over-ambitious human intellectual endeavors?
- Are humans truly locked in inevitable destructive cycles? Is this the true price of sin, if you have such beliefs?
- Is the preservation of knowledge truly capable of stopping history from repeating itself? Can anything stop history from repeating itself?
- Is the pursuit of knowledge amoral and/or apolitical? Is it a consequence of free pursuit? (page 220-221)
- Who is the “Lazarus” beggar character? What/who does he represent and what is his purpose in the story? Is he merely a foil?
- What is the purpose of the frequent use of buzzards in the story? What do they represent? Why does Miller use them so much?
Quotes and passages of interest from the book:
- (p 221-222) “If you save wisdom until the world is wise, the world will never have it.”
- (p 228-229) The discussion on how each new age has an “intelligent” explanation for the origins of the world that “clearly” show the silliness of religion is very pointed and accurate in its perception of how foolishly wise humans think themselves to be.
- (p 234) “But why must it all be acted again? The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering.” (I found the use of the serpent, not a serpent, to be interesting.)
- (p 297) “Pain’s the only evil I know about. […] society is the only thing which determines whether an act is wrong or not.” […] “How did those two heresies get back into the world after all this time? Hell has limited imaginations down there.”
- (p 298) “Sincere — that was the hell of it. […] Perhaps Satan was the sincerest of the lot.”
- (p 213) The description of the “Jesus” statue is particularly startling.
- (p 326) “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law — a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”
Outside Links: Read about the book
Outside Links: Discussion