Sentences — November 24, 2008, 5:33 pm

Knowingly and Winkingly

canticle_001In the six months or so that I’ve had this little column, I’ve been surprised and pleased by all the mail. Very little of it is anything less than spirited, whichever way, and always full of stern advice about books I should be reading (and offering, in one instance, an unsolicited recipe for Borscht). Last week took the soup, though, after I posted on the little-did-I-know it was a sacred cow of science fiction, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Readers voted early and often. I got handed my hat. A representative sampling of the G-rated portion of the mail:

Kevin C. Gold: I was a little saddened to read the short piece “Girded Loins,” about Mr. Mason’s chance encounter with A Canticle for Leibowitz. Does he really marvel at the “purity of its awfulness”? Really?

Kate Lowe: Just read your squib on your discovery of this classic of science fiction—also praised (although not by all) by some in the MSM, and well-regarded in literary circles. It’s an acquired taste, admittedly, but I am having trouble believing you really had never heard of it before. I suggest you do a little research.

Ruth Worman: That luridly beckoning first sentence was written, I believe, with tongue firmly in cheek. The Canticle is a sci-fi classic, and it knowingly and winkingly references certain conventions of religious narratives. Thus we have loincloths, Lenten fasts, and the rest.

Jeff Keller: I’m not quite writing to defend “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (although I was rather taken with it when I read it years ago), but I have questions about your post. Specifically, I’m interested in your opinion of the book, but I can’t actually tell whether or not you’re condemning it based on that opening sentence or even whether (in the course of the day) you read the book.

canticle_002 Lest I stand accused of mumpery or worse, I should make a few things clear. I’m all for sci-fi, or, at least, have never turned up my nose thereto. As such, I make and made no claims about the wholesale awfulness of A Canticle, which does seem to have quite a following. Rather, I was indeed talking about that first sentence, which I do find, taken not so much out of context as shorn of purpose, delightfully terrible. I like and trust Ruth Worman’s “luridly beckoning,” though, and am happy to believe that Miller was in on all the fun. As such, rest assured, David Magaro and others, of course I’ll read Miller’s book, in my gas station copy, at left–rather different in trim from the first edition, above–and offer a more comprehensive report of what I find when I’m done.

Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today