A Canticle For Leibowitz almost turned into a swan song for Alchemy. I got to the end of the book and thought to myself, “Well, shoot.” Because, really, what could I say? Miller nailed it. All my fears, set down in black and white. And I had to really sit and mull things over before I could express myself properly, because there’s a lot to think about here.
I read dystopian fiction because I worry about the future of American culture, and a good healthy dip in one’s fears — albeit exaggerated to dire proportions — is a great coping mechanism. I mean, sure, we’re in a bit of a pickle with the obesity epidemic, our shocking disregard for the environment, and the vast wasteland of brain-rot that passes for television these days, just to name a few issues. But surely truth will never become as bad as fiction…right?
Once upon a time in a future that didn’t happen, one government called another government’s bluff on the whole Mutually Assured Destruction thing, and the nuclear bombs rained down like lemmings plunging from a cliff. Angry at their former leaders for making such a mess of things, the survivors decided that knowledge was dangerous, and that they preferred to live without all that book-learning, thank you kindly. They called themselves simpletons, with pride, and they built themselves simple towns what had neither schools nor libraries, because they weren’t about to get fooled by those Smarty McSmartypantses ever again.
There you have it: the librarian’s nightmare.
Canticle chronicles several hundred years of this new state of affairs, in which the only organized group that cares anything about literacy and learning is the Catholic Church. Characters live and die, events rise and fall, progress is made, and then shattered to bits in ways that made me pull my hair in frustration. Oh, sure, eventually we get universities back…for the wealthy elite. And poetry continues to matter…to madmen, sure, but one has to start somewhere. And don’t even get me started on the position of women in this ducky new future – until the very end, women are seldom seen and even more rarely heard; what’s worse, all the women we see are concubines or otherwise miserable wretches. In fact, it kind of breaks my brain that in a novel about religious orders, there were no nuns. That strains the limits of my credulity, even for sci-fi!
But I digress.
Canticle is an epic book in the sense that you probably shouldn’t get too attached to any one character; lives wink in and out over the centuries, each actor playing his part upon the stage, then retiring. And yet, taken together, these “little” lives weave a tapestry that mirrors the struggle in which we are all currently engaged: how to make a better world, how to advocate for what we think is right, how to steer civilization in the course we think best and proper, how to get along with people whose notions of “better,” “right,” best, and “proper” differ from our own.
The novel’s appeal factors are, sad to say, limited, not because the book isn’t excellent, but rather because of its high level of excellence. Few and far between are the folks who wish to dust off — or research, or learn — Latin and Hebrew in order to get the most out of a work. Rarer still, I expect, are those who wish to wrestle with grand philosophical and theological questions unless they’re earning grades for their pains. It is enough, however, that these novels exist and are read by those who choose to read them.
I have, you see, learned something over the course of my brief career that grappling with Canticle has re-confirmed: learning can be encouraged, but not compelled, particularly in adults. Once they are done with their compulsory schooling, grownups are free to remain ignorant of everything else under the sun. Nobody can make them learn anything new, or appreciate the diversity of what life has to offer. And there isn’t a blessed thing we librarians can do about it.
Except make sure that there will always be physical spaces for wisdom and learning, knowledge and light, peace and quiet. Except select materials that reflect the best of literature, art, music, science, technology, world culture, even if it’s the pop culture stuff that gets people through the doors these days, because there’s always a ghost of a chance that someone might catch a glimpse of diamonds in the dross. Except plan programs that teach and edify, either concrete skills or abstract concepts; except read voraciously, then write about what you’ve read on Facebook, Twitter, or your blog, thus elevating what could be a shiny, useless tool into an instrument of civilization. Except go to the mat again and again with your elected officials, reminding them that, unlike a for-profit organization, the purpose of a library is to uphold the mores and values of civilization, not fill somebody’s pockets. Except work and work and work and work for little pay and less recognition, in the hopes that, of all the seeds we plant, some will bear fruit.
Society must always have the choice between the wise and the dross, even though wisdom sings softly, and the crass and vulgar will outshout it every time. Without the choice, without the possibility for grace, the prospect of life on this planet becomes bleak, indeed. Libraries are an essential service not only for what they contain, but what they symbolize: the possibility of betterment, the presence of hope in a world growing increasingly more hopeless, the ghost of a chance that maybe someday we will turn away from vapid, petty, pointless and stupid, and invest in the things that rust can’t corrode, nor moths sneak in and chew to smithereens.
At this point I would like to stress strongly that although Miller frames his points in terms of Catholic theology, and that my plaid-skirt survivor outlook does tend to heavily color my own thinking, no one religious, philosophical, or ethical system has a lock on choice or grace. And this, too, is part of the beauty of the library: that there is room for all of us here, whether we be Muslim, Neo-Pagan, Christian, Wiccan, Buddhist, Jew, atheist, agnostic, or Pastafarian.
These ideas are not “sexy,” per se. They don’t translate well to cutesy YouTube videos or the kind of rhetoric that impresses local gubmint. And yet, we try. We shout as loudly as we can over the howling din of the shallow and the stupid, and hope that grace descends, as it descends near the end of Canticle, perhaps in a form of which we cannot yet conceive, but ever long for.
I’ll let you off the hook if you decide you can skip this one; if you do decide to read it, or have already read it, please do let me know what you think. That’s rather a weak note upon which to end, but it is late, and I am tired…and I will need all my strength to take up arms against the sea of stupid once more, tomorrow.
Bonsoir, Constant Reader. When next we meet, I’ll have flipped a coin.