Word Count: Negative. Edited a short story.
When people ask me, “What’s your favorite [fill in the blank]?” I usually make this face:
I don’t know why, it’s like my brain goes completely empty when I get this question. I’ve had to pre-prepare my answers to avoid looking like the sort of doofus that can’t even name a single movie or book.
My favorite movies go approximately in this order:
TV Shows? That one’s easy:
This list took me much longer figure out, and to be fair, it’s also a single entry. I don’t know why, but I never really thought about any book as being my favorite. I’m more obsessed with reading than just about anything, so choosing one book over everything else was too difficult. The Chronicles of Narnia are up there.Girl with a Pearl Earring? Maybe A Primate’s Memoir? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? All very, very good, love them. But impossible to rank them. Books are shiftier than movies. What strikes you with love one day, may not even compare with a different book in another year. When you read books matters. In what circumstances you read them matters too. And what about all the books I can't even think of while I'm doing my Homer Simpson impression? Somewhere in that empty brain of mine is a book I love, but I can't think of it on the spot.
Finally, several years after reading this one book, I decided it was in fact my favorite. I kept thinking about it off and on for a long time, which is a sure sign of a good story. That book is A Canticle for Leibowitz.
I read it at the beach, mostly sitting in the hot-tub, which is admittedly an odd place to read a story about a monastery and nuclear war, but it was such a big story – taking place over thousands of years, that I was completely absorbed. Couldn't put it down.
I find stories that take place over either confined or broad arcs of time and/or space to be particularly intriguing. One of my favorite short stories in Martin Amis's The Immortals, which is literally geologic in terms of timescale, taking place over millions and millions of years. Somehow, it works. The narrator pulls you along that time-line in just a few pages. Meanwhile, your mind is sort of blown apart by the size of what is taking place and frankly, by what kind of narrator can sit around for millions of years, picking his nose. Who's got that kind of patience?
I also really like stories that take place over really short periods of time. Think John Hughes movies, how they almost always take place in a day. The Breakfast Club is set almost entirely in a library. There's something very satisfying about a story that is bold enough to limit its terrain.
The setting for A Canticle for Leibowitz occurs somewhere between these two extremes: over a period of a few thousand years, over three distinct story arcs, but almost entirely within the setting of a catholic monastery somewhere in the American southwest. Like the dark ages, this monastery is a safe-hold of knowledge following a devastating nuclear war that has wiped out most of civilization and almost everything man has developed up to that point (electricity, communications, clean water etc.). What follows is the story of civilization's slow struggle back to its original state as told through the eyes of the monastery, its novices and abbots, and their particular respect for human life in the middle of a savage experience.
Apparently, Walter M. Miller Jr., the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz, actually bombed an Italian monastery that was being used by Nazis during WWII. He wrote Canticle years later and only deep in the writing process did he realize that he was in fact writing, in a way, about the monastery that he had helped to destroy. What a terrible thing to be haunted by and I think it shows in the power of the story and the writing.
I won't ruin the end of Canticle for you if you haven't read it, but I loved it. The event that happens, the way it's described, it's the closest I can imagine to experiencing the real thing. The fact that it's wrapped up in a spiritual question of life and value gives it even more impact. It's really hard to describe without giving it away.
So if A Canticle for Leibowitz has been on your reading list for a while, I suggest you move it to the top. It's, in my opinion, not just one of the greatest sci-fi books every written, but up there among the best books overall.
What's your favorite book?