Details: (c) 1959 Walter M Miller Jr; Pub Orbit 1997; ISBN 1-85723-014-0
Verdict: A brilliant book, moving, complex and intelligent. Wow.
Reasons for reading it: It's vaguely famous, and M's talking about it jumped up the priority of a vague intention to read it at some point.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.
A canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most impressive books I've read in ages, certainly since I started this blog. I was gripped from the first page; aCfL does just about everything right: flowing prose, new ideas explored rigorously and interestingly, an exciting story, etc.
Although aCfL is much more a book about ideas and situations than people (it doesn't really have a protagonist, as such), every single minor character is absolutely believable. That alone would generally let me like the book a great deal, but aCfL has many other good features as well. The narrative voice is never intrusive either; there are many possible messages that a reader could take away from reading aCfL.
As a portrayal of the horror of nuclear war, this is absolutely unsurpassed by anything I've read. The book opens several centuries after the end of the devastation that everybody expected at the height of the cold war, and recounts how the remnant of humanity claws its way back to cvilization... and back to nuclear capacity and proliferation. This makes the second nuclear holocaust in the final chapter all the more horrifying, partly because it is the second time round. But there is far more to aCfL than anti-nuclear polemic.
In many ways aCfL is a religious piece; the Catholic church plays more or less the rôle expected for a protagonist. I am of course not qualified to say whether it presents a realistic portrait of (pre-Vatican II) Catholicism, but it most certainly presents a highly plausible potrait of a religion. The Church is portrayed in a very balanced way; there is a very clear sense of both the positive and negative aspects of an entrenched religious institution, as well as the religious impulse in various characters' lives. Religion in aCfL is not reduced to a simplistic message, but is morally complex enough to be sustainable for real people in a morally complex world.
There are all kinds of elements in aCfL, and I got the impression that every little detail was very carefully placed and contributed something symbolically. I'm sure that a more literary sort of person than me would get even more out of it, but it never felt pretentious because it works so well on a simple story level as well. I think a lot of it is elements of Christian mythology reinstated in a new context: the Wandering Jew keeps showing up, and there's a very weird interpretation of the Immaculate Conception.
I loved the glimpses of society and the monastic community within it at different stages, the equivalents of the Dark Ages, the Renaissance and the modern period. Again, everything felt plausible and solid, and not just a vehicle for the story. In a sense it's alternate history, but the repetition is a key element, it's not just an excuse for the alternate-ness.
As well as taking great delight in reading such a well-written piece, I was very moved by aCfL. I really cared about the fate of indivuals and also of humanity as a whole. The book avoids easy emotional tricks, and provides neither a happy-ever-after ending nor total despair.