A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York: EOS, 1959; reprint 2006)

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Novels about the self-destruction of human civilization have been increasingly popular in our modern age:  1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Clockwork Orange, and more.  In these stories society collapses because of war, evil governments, Big Brother, or a zombie virus. Rarely, if ever, is the dark, twisted jungle of the human heart blamed for the demise of civilization.

Atomic Fallout and AOL Monks

But A Canticle for Leibowitz is different.  It begins after an atomic war (the Flame Deluge) has decimated human civilization, blasting human culture back into shamanism and clan warfare.  The Church survives the flood of fire in isolated pockets of monastic culture.  A new order of monks, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (or AOL for short, a joke that wasn’t funny when this book was published in 1959), has dedicated itself to preserve the Memorabilia—any and all written texts from pre-fallout days.  Like the Irish monks after the fall of Rome, the Albertian monks save civilization one page at a time by copying and recopying ancient texts with quill pens and candlelight, while the world burns around them.

This novel follows the Order of Leibowitz through three distinct periods of history,  a post-apocalyptic retelling of western civilization.  The first section of the novel corresponds to the early medieval period.  It follows the adventures of Brother Francis of Utah as he struggles to discern his vocation as an ascetic desert monk and wrestles with the abbot over the possibility of miraculous appearances.

The second section of the novel corresponds to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  The central conflict pits another AOL abbot against the agnostic scholar Thon Taddeo, a genius whose integrating mind has rediscovered modern science by piecing together the chaotic Memorabilia.  The third section of the novel corresponds to the modern age.  It introduces a third abbot who struggles to keep Christian ethics alive in an age of atomic and moral expediency.

Faith and a Long Memory

A Canticle for Leibowitz is an engaging read, and a fascinating reprisal of the chief conflicts of the soul that shaped western civilization.  Its central theme is that the ultimate cause of human suffering is the native corruption of the human heart.  And if this corruption can be overcome at all, it must be through faith in God’s goodness aided by knowledge and a very, very long memory.  This would be a fascinating book to read in conjunction with C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, since both books arrive at the same truths by two different paths.

A Reading Guide for Leibowitz

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