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In 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.
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.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”