One Book Everyone Should Read: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz

When asked what book I think everyone should read in their lifetime, the answer came surprisingly easily.

It had to be Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

I have several editions of this 1959 post apocalyptic classic, but my favorite is the one released in 2006, with an introduction by Mary Doria Russell and stunning cover art by John Picacio. In the introduction, Russell classifies the Hugo Award–winning novel as literature with a capital L: a novel that will change all those who read it. She couldn’t be more correct—this bitingly cynical and disturbingly prophetic look at the future of humankind will chill readers to the bone.

Set in a Utah monastery centuries after a nuclear war devastated the Earth, the book opens on Brother Francis Gerard of Leibowitz Abbey, who is on a Lenten fast in the desert when he uncovers an ancient fallout survival shelter containing puzzling clues into pre-Flame Deluge culture. Some of the findings may even have belonged to martyred “booklegger” Isaac Edward Leibowitz himself, a priest who dedicated his life to saving knowledge for future generations. But will Brother Gerard’s discovery help humankind avoid another self-inflicted catastrophe?

More than half a century after its release, A Canticle for Leibowitz hasn’t lost any of its megaton punch: if anything, Miller’s words have taken on an eerie aura of prophecy:

“Is the species congenitally insane, Brother?…Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?…Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion…”

Miller’s own story is almost as fascinating as the novel. Born in Florida in 1923, he was an Air Force combatant in WWII, flying in more than 50 bombing missions in Europe. After the war, he converted to Catholicism and published numerous short stories. (“The Darfsteller” won a Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 1955.) But he suffered from severe depression—Joe Haldeman has said that it was PTSD before it had a name—and in his later years became a recluse, eventually committing suicide in 1996. A Canticle for Leibowitz was his only novel published in his lifetime.

I rarely read a book more than once, but I’ve read this one four times, and each time it’s just as powerful as the last. A fascinating and paradoxical work by an equally paradoxical man, A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the best science fiction novels out there. Russell sums it up perfectly: “You’ll be different when you finish it.”

  • Mary E. Butler

    I wish people could write about their favorite books without insisting that it has to become everyone else’s favorite book as well. I can’t count the number of books that have been described to me as “it will totally change you forever and you must must must read it,” but “Canticle” is close to the top of the list. I’m glad you like it, but I like different kinds of books, and I can’t get into post-apocalyptic novels or a lot of science fiction. “Pride and Prejudice” is one of my favorite books, but that doesn’t mean that it will change you forever and so you must read it.

    • Joel Cunningham

      While I get your point in theory, the question posed at the beginning of this essay is “What book should everyone read?” so it kind of requires some enthusiasm. It’s a hypothetical question to get people thinking about the books they really love. I think Paul does a good job of describing what the book is about rather than insisting it will change a person (that sentence is even quoting another reviewer).
      Personally, I liked this book a lot but it didn’t have a profound impact on me. I liked the middle section a lot because it was funny, but the finale has been sadly weakened by decades of similar post-apocalyptic stories.

      • Mary E. Butler

        You are right. That sound you heard was my knee jerking. Apologies.

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