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.

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I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

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