Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) is a novel of its time; locked, sadly, in its time.
Written during the developing Cold War when nuclear annihilation through mutual destruction seemed close to inevitable, this is a book about persistence in an endless cycle of birth, annihilation, and rebirth.
What does this book have to say about post-literacy? A bit.
This post is part of an ongoing series about science fiction and post-literacy. What can speculative fiction tell us about post-literacy? Spoiler Alert in effect.
The central conceit of the book is the veneration of the “Memorabilia”, textual detritus from the “pre-Deluge” age (literally shopping lists, manuals, blueprints for machines, etc.). A religious order preserves these (along with books memorized and others buried in kegs by “bookleggers”) believing them to be critical messages to inform and direct the return of civilization.
As the many centuries unfold these texts move from being inscrutable, to manuals for the rebirth of ideas, and finally to relics to be preserved once again (this time in a space colony) in the face of the virtual annihilation of Earth.
Literacy. Persistence. Preservation. Ideas. Truth. Faith. Commitment.
Lots of themes central to the idea of reading and writing as a core element of civilization (and of illiteracy has the mark of barbarism in times of “simplification”).
Lots of Latin too.
And surely that’s the biggest clunker in the book: the inexplicable persistence of Latin as the language of the Church into the far distant centuries. It seems as odd and unlikely as the use of shorthand in Clarke’s Childhood’s End (more on that here).
As a canticle to literacy and the power of reading and writing, Leibowitz is bloated and pedantic. While I’m likely oblivious or insensitive the larger religious messages of the novel, I’m not persuaded by the book that literacy holds the enduring power Miller ascribes to it.
Walter M Miller Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam, 2007. (Originally published in 1959).