A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz

4.1 46
by Walter Miller

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In the depths of the Utah desert, long after the Flame Deluge has scoured the earth clean, a monk of the Order of Saint Leibowitz has made a miraculous discovery: holy relics from the life of the great saint himself, including the blessed blueprint, the sacred shopping list, and the hallowed shrine of the Fallout Shelter.

In a terrifying age of darkness and

…  See more details below


In the depths of the Utah desert, long after the Flame Deluge has scoured the earth clean, a monk of the Order of Saint Leibowitz has made a miraculous discovery: holy relics from the life of the great saint himself, including the blessed blueprint, the sacred shopping list, and the hallowed shrine of the Fallout Shelter.

In a terrifying age of darkness and decay, these artifacts could be the keys to mankind's salvation. But as the mystery at the core of this groundbreaking novel unfolds, it is the search itself—for meaning, for truth, for love—that offers hope for humanity's rebirth from the ashes.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Extraordinary ... chillingly effective.”— Time

“Angry, eloquent ... a terrific story.”— The New York Times

“An extraordinary novel ... Prodigiously imaginative, richly comic, terrifyingly grim, profound both intellectually and morally, and, above all ... simply such a memorable story as to stay with the reader for years.”— Chicago Tribune

“An exciting and imaginative story ... Unconditionally recommended.”— Library Journal

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Random House Publishing Group
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Bantam Spectra Book Series
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4.19(w) x 6.87(h) x 0.97(d)
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The box was shaped like a satchel and was obviously a carrying case of some kind.  It might have served any number of purposes, but it had been rather badly battered by flying stones.  Gingerly he worked it loose from the rubble and carried it closer to the fire.  The lock seemed to be broken, but the lid had rusted shut.  The box rattled when he shook it.  It was not an obvious place to look for books or papers, but—obviously too—it was designed to be opened and closed, and might contain a scrap or two of information for the Memorabilia.  Nevertheless, remembering the fate of Brother Boedullus and others, he sprinkled it with holy water before attempting to pry it open, and he handled the ancient relic as reverently as was possible while battering at its rusty hinges with a stone.

At last he broke the hinges, and the lid fell free. Small metal tidbits bounced from trays, spilled among the rocks, some of them falling irretrievably into crevices. But, in the bottom of the box in the space beneath the trays, he beheld—papers!  After a quick prayer of thanksgiving, he regathered as many of the scattered tidbits as he could, and, after loosely replacing the lid, began climbing the hill of debris toward the stairwell and the thin patch of sky, with the box hugged tightly under one arm.

The sun was blinding after the darkness of the shelter. He scarcely bothered to notice that it was sinking dangerously low in the west, but began at once to search for a flat slab on which the contents of the box could be spread for examination without risk of losing anything in the sand.

Minutes later, seated on a cracked foundation slab, he began removing the tidbits of metal and glass that filled the trays.  Most of them were small tubular things with a wire whisker at each end of each tube.  These, he had seen before.  The abbey's small museum had a few of them, of various size, shape and color.  Once he had seen a shaman of the hill-pagan people wearing a string of them as a ceremonial necklace.  The hill people thought of them as "parts of the body of the god"—of the fabled Machina analytica, hailed as the wisest of their gods.  By swallowing one of them, a shaman could acquire "Infallibility," they said.  He certainly acquired Indisputability that way, among his own people—unless he swallowed one of the poison kind.  The similar tidbits in the museum were connected together too—not in the form of a necklace, but as a complex and rather disorderly maze in the bottom of a small metal box, exhibited as: "Radio Chassis: Application Uncertain."

Inside the lid of the carrying case, a note had been glued; the glue had powdered, the ink had faded, and the paper was so darkened by rusty stains that even good handwriting would have been hard enough to read, but this was written in a hasty scrawl.  He studied it intermittently while emptying the trays.  It seemed to be English, of a sort, but half an hour passed before he deciphered most of the message:


Must grab plane for [undecipherable] in twenty minutes.  For God's sake, keep Em there till we know if we're at war.  Please! try to get her on the alternate list for the shelter.  Can't get her a seat on my plane.  Don't tell her why I sent her over with this box of junk, but try to keep her there till we know [undecipherable] at  worst, one of the alternates not show.

P.S.  I put the seal on the lock and put TOP SECRET on the lid just to keep Em from looking inside.  First tool box I happened to grab.  Shove it in my locker or something.

The note seemed hasty gibberish to Brother Francis, who was at the moment too excited to concentrate on any single item more than the rest.  After a final sneer at the notewriter's hasty scrawl, he began the task of removing the tray-racks to get at the papers in the bottom of the box.  The trays were mounted on a swinging linkage which was obviously meant to swing the trays out of the box in stair-step array, but the pins were rusted fast, and Francis found it necessary to pry them out with a short steel tool from one of the tray compartments.

When Brother Francis had removed the last tray, he touched the papers reverently: only a handful of folded documents here, and yet a treasure; for they had escaped the angry flames of the Simplification, wherein even sacred writings had curled, blackened, and withered into smoke while ignorant mobs howled and hailed it a triumph.  He handled the papers as one might handle holy things, shielding them from the wind with his habit, for all were brittle and cracked from age.  There was a sheaf of rough sketches and diagrams.  There were hand-scribbled notes, two large folded papers, and a small book entitled Memo.

First he examined the jotted notes.  They were scrawled by the same hand that had written the note glued to the lid, and the penmanship was no less abominable.  Pound pastrami, said one note, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.  Another reminded: Remember—pick up Form 1040, Uncle Revenue.  Another was only a column of figures with a circled total from which a second amount was subtracted and finally a percentage taken, followed by the word damn!  Brother Francis checked the figures; he could find no fault with the abominable penman's arithmetic, at least, although he could deduce nothing about what the quantities might represent.

Memo, he handled with special reverence, because its title was suggestive of "Memorabilia." Before opening it, he crossed himself and murmured the Blessing of Texts.  But the small book proved a disappointment.  He had expected printed matter, but found only a handwritten list of names, places, numbers and dates.  The dates ranged through the latter part of the fifth decade, and earlier part of the sixth decade, twentieth century.  Again it was affirmed!—the contents of the shelter came from the twilight period of the Age of Enlightenment.  An important discovery indeed.

Of the larger folded papers, one was tightly rolled as well, and it began to fall apart when he tried to unroll it; he could make out the words RACING FORM, but nothing more.  After returning it to the box for later restorative work, he turned to the second folded document; its creases were so brittle that he dared inspect only a little of it, by parting the folds slightly and peering between them.

A diagram, it seemed, but—a diagram of white lines on dark paper!

Again he felt the thrill of discovery.  It was clearly a blueprint!—and there was not a single original blueprint left at the abbey, but only inked facsimiles of several such prints.  The originals had faded long ago from overexposure to light.  Never before had Francis seen an original, although he had seen enough handpainted reproductions to recognize it as a blueprint, which, while stained and faded, remained legible after so many centuries because of the total darkness and low humidity in the shelter.  He turned the document over—and felt brief fury.  What idiot had desecrated the priceless paper?  Someone had sketched absentminded geometrical figures and childish cartoon faces all over the back.  What thoughtless vandal—

The anger passed after a moment's reflection.  At the time of the deed, blueprints had probably been as common as weeds, and the owner of the box the probable culprit.  He shielded the print from the sun with his own shadow while trying to unfold it further.  In the lower right-hand corner was a printed rectangle containing, in simple block letters, various titles, dates, "patent numbers," reference numbers, and names.  His eye traveled down the list until it encountered: "CIRCUIT DESIGN BY: Leibowitz, I.E."

He closed his eyes tightly and shook his head until it seemed to rattle.  Then he looked again.  There it was, quite plainly:


The name was written in a clear feminine hand, not in the hasty scrawl of the other notes.  He looked again at the initialed signature of the note in the lid of the box: I.E.L.—and again at "CIRCUIT DESIGN BY. . ." And the same initials appeared elsewhere throughout the notes.

There had been argument, all highly conjectural, about whether the beatified founder of the Order, if finally canonized, should be addressed as Saint Isaac or as Saint Edward.  Some even favored Saint Leibowitz as the proper address, since the Beatus had, until the present, been referred to by his surname.

"Beate Leibowitz, ora pro me!" whispered Brother Francis.  His hands were trembling so violently that they threatened to ruin the brittle documents.

He had uncovered relics of the Saint.

Excerpted from A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.  Copyright (c) 1959 by Walter M. Miller, Jr.  Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.  All rights reserved.  No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Canticle for Leibowitz 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, is an excellent read. Written in the late 1950s, reading Canticle brings back the every day, never-ending, twenty-four hour threat of world-ending nuclear conflict we lived with during the Cold War. And it reminds us, who were around during those times, upon reading this story, centered around a Catholic monastery and seeing text littered with Latin phrases, the days when Latin 'mother to all the Romance languages' was studied, even in public schools. I couldn't deter the smile that crept across my face, as I learned a character had lost a bet when he had come in second at the game of mumbly peg, a knife throwing contest popular during the middle of the last century prior to the discovery of 'dangerous' lead in paint, hazardous monkeybars, lifesaving seatbelts or XBox 360s. Yes, those were simpler times, when this boy of five could crawl up onto the sturdy and felt-covered shelf behind the rear seats in our four steel-doored 1951 Kaiser sedan and fall asleep bathed in the rays of the mild Arizona winter sun. 'Canticle' which means religious chant, is unabashedly Catholic, as is demonstrated when a brother fights for a natural death of a radioactive and terminally ill mother and daughter pair, rather than give in to the quick, convenient, and no charge 'Soylent Green-style' euthanasia. Canticle also meets another one of my preferred old-school moral criteria for Science Fiction, and that being that there are no sexual copulations within its covers. Canticle is not a Harry Potter 'type' happy ending book, and as Joe Bob Briggs says about good horror movies, 'Anyone can die, at anytime and anyplace.' For a book written almost fifty years ago, author Miller does an excellent job of predicting future technology. And he did not make the mistake I've seen often in mediocre SciFi books, that of centering the majority of the action on the 'predicted' technology, which, if the author has guessed wrong, and when read in later decades simply renders the book just silly. Covering a span of six hundred years on Earth, the book exposes the unrelenting greed, lust for power and pride of a few men that will forever threaten those wishing to live in peace and, if their weapons are sophisticated enough, threaten continued civilization on this planet. Canticle offers to the reader a compelling, effortless writing style that, after a few moments, other than the turning of pages, one doesn't feel like one is reading. It allowed this reader to develop affections for believable characters and presented entirely believable future technologies, while at the same time the strong moral code adhered to by the clergy of the Catholic faith, in this day of anything goes, even for this lapsed Lutheran, was quite refreshing.
JL_Garner More than 1 year ago
Not being a big fan of a.) post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and b.) the Roman Catholic church, I was surprised at how deeply and completely Walter Miller's classic "A Canticle for Liebowitz" drew me into its well-crafted world.

The novel centers on a monastic community in the American southwest which devotes itself to preserving the remaining scraps of Western knowledge following World War III. The novel is divided into three parts: "Fiat Homo," during the depth of the new dark ages, in which an old electrical diagram is found; "Fiat Lux," several centuries later, in which someone figures out how to make a working incandescent light; and "Fiat Voluntas Tua," in which technology finally catches up, and the human race finds itself on the verge of repeating history.

The characters in the first two sections are really well-written and colorful, and the amount of detail put into creating this future world is considerable. Unfortunately the third act feels a bit rushed and prone to broad comedy, whereas the first two segments had an undercurrent of wry wit about them.

Most readers will want to have a good Latin-English dictionary handy (or access to an online translation site like Babelfish), as the book -- written pre-Vatican II -- has a few lines (and one prayer at the beginning of the third act) in Latin.

This is definitely a well-written, engrossing novel, and while the threat of a wipe-out-the-earth nuclear "shooting war" may have passed with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, "Canticle" still makes for a great read.
JGolomb More than 1 year ago
"A Canticle for Leibowitz" is a book that defies standard categorization. I suppose it has enough future-world, post-apocalyptic concepts that it falls in the science fiction realm, but it's not your basic laser beam and alien fare. This story goes much deeper. "Canticle" is made up of three stories that span thousands of years. Each story focuses on a distinct time period, looking progressively further into a post-apocalyptic future. The setting is the same abby in the American West, founded to protect and preserve the learnings of the pre-apocalyptic society. Specifically, they've developed a myth around a martyered scientist named Leibowitz. The first story revolves around Brother Francis who accidentally discovers certain original papers created by Leibowitz, including the blue prints for a technological device. The second story centers on a new technological awakening where future theorists come in contact with ancient (modern) technology. The sequence comes full circle in the third story as our future world is faced again with mutual mass destruction. Miller wrote "Canticle" in the late '50s when World War II and the atomic bomb were still visible in the world's rearview mirror and the cold war threat was very much a reality. Much of Millers discourse is on the cyclical nature of cultures and societies, the interconnectivities between religion and science, as well as death and politics. It's clear that much of the evocative emotion stems from Miller's time in the military and a youth grown up during a World War. The story is at times light and humourous but threaded with a very heavy and serious undertone throughout. The root story I found very interesting - how this future-world's archaeology is our modern world's past. I felt that the first two segments of the book were strongest and was only saddened that each couldn't have more ink themselves. In reflecting upon the discoveries of their past, and their promises of hope for the future, Millers writes, "For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded...Truth could be crucified, but soon, perhaps a resurrection." The development of religion, while always founded in christianity, morphs over the course of the story and we see a mythology grow over time. This book is successful on many levels...as simply an intriguing story with attractive characters, and as literature built upon a foundation of religion and war. It's solid story telling at its best, with heart, emotion and intelligence layered on top of the tale from start to finish.
catburglar More than 1 year ago
Well written; interesting characters; coherent story; but weak ending. Everything is good except that the ending seemed inconclusive. Several loose ends were not resolved.
Hibari More than 1 year ago
Even though this book was first published in 1959 you won't know it; this is a byproduct of good writing and story telling. It presents a fresh take on the circle of history theme.
GotZombie More than 1 year ago
It's kind of depressing that only 50 people have reviewed this awesome book. I read this about 20 years ago as a teenager and it's still one of the best examples of the post-apocalyptic genre. It also has aged very well I think. Read it, you won't be disappointed.
stanleybt More than 1 year ago
The book is basically three novellas set hundreds of years apart in Texas. Leibowitz is a monastery and a Saint. The stories depict humanity in a circular life of destruction, renaissance, rebuilding, and destruction. This style of science fiction is away from the fast action, multiple characters, and continuous sequel that is the style today. This book needs to be read and not glanced over because the stories have hidden meanings about the survival of humanity. It is character driven and not the superficial style of science fiction today where the book is forgotten minutes after it is read because it said nothing.
Joel_M More than 1 year ago
This is some of the best post-apocalyptic science fiction I have read. The three sections of the book offer snapshots of life in a Roman Catholic monastery approximately 600, 1,200 and 1,800 years after nuclear holocaust which resulted in environmental devastation and anti-intellectual riots that virtually destroyed civilization. The brotherhood's attempts to preserve and rediscover lost history and science is a dark, occasionally humorous, mostly depressing look at religion, science, and the depravity of mankind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
This story spans thousands of years as civilization attempts to rebuild itself after a nuclear war. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz are charged with preserving historical remnants and protecting technological advances until the world is ready to once again accept them. I'm not even sure what to say about this one. In a lot of ways it's a brilliant novel, yet. there was a simpleness to it which made it seem less so. At least, while reading it, I didn't get a sense that this was one of the greatest literary works to have been published. However, it was (and is) considered a literary masterpiece by many. As quiet as the delivery is, the message that Miller delivers packs a powerful punch and that message is clearly, that history has a way of repeating itself. As he describes the "simplification" process where all who are learned are either killed or attacked by mobs, you can't help but think about other historical events which involved the hatred of others just because they were different. Oh, and let's talk about industrialization for a moment. The advances in technology that we make use of each and every day are welcomed for the most part, but at some point, the effects of having them will take their toll. We know this, so while reading this story, I found it amusing that these monks were fighting to protect technology. This is definitely the kind of book that you have to ponder for a while and I must say, I've read a lot of apocalyptic novels yet none of them had this "bigger than self" feel. There is so much to discuss between the religious themes, the theme of recurrence and the balance between church and state. My book club chose this book and we discuss it this Thursday. It will be interesting to hear their reactions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was required reading when I took a Literature course in college 30 years ago. At that time it was my professor's favorite. After reading it, I had to agree. I still have a copy and re-read it about once a year. I also still have my small yellow handled screw driver, the symbol of Leibowitz'z followers. Almost every electronics person I knew from the analog days believe in Leibowitz.
BookCore More than 1 year ago
I believe this was the first one I ever read. It creeped me out, but then again I think I was only about 14. Now I've read other books in the same mold that were much more intricate, which I like better. "Canticle" stays with you though. If you are a Catholic, take note: the Catholic Church of the far future seems not to have changed much.
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