Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Isaac E. Leibowitz Monastery Of Rare Books

The rare book shop at the abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, 
in the Southwest United States.
"550 years after Gutenberg's invention of mechanical movable type...much of the infrastructure that has girded the vast ecosystem of the book – bookstores, new and used, the book section at Costco, libraries that you actually have to visit, the book sale in the church basement – vanishes. Meanwhile, the 'monasteries' of the 21st century will be the rare-book libraries and special collections in universities, antiquarian booksellers working out of their homes or in shops on the margins of downtown" (The Globe and Mail, The Future of Books, Part 3).

Or, perhaps, a monastery in the American Southwest in a world where learning and advanced knowledge are scorned and to even read is considered a subversive activity. A world where illiteracy is the proud norm, ignorance is worn as a badge of honor, and to be called a Simpleton is an honorific, a  desired title of respect. The power of books to raise civilization has become their curse and so they must be, and are, razed.

The brothers of this Order of Rare Books have little if any knowledge of the contents of the books they protect; those who had understanding are long gone. The content could be liturgical texts, cookbook recipes, or glorified shopping lists for all anyone knows, each held with equal mystery and veneration by the friars, all perceived as objects of fear by the general populace and its leaders who want nothing to do with anything that smacks of intellect, which undermines and erodes traditional values, natural law, and simple common sense. The world has become flat again and would prefer to stay that way.

Welcome to the future monastery of rare books, the abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, established by electrical engineer and radical book collector Isaac Edward Leibowitz to husband what little is left of written knowledge, to hide and protect books and surviving scraps of ephemera from the latter-day Philistines who would destroy them.
 First edition, 1960.
Dust jacket design by Milton Glaser.

It is the world created by Walter M. Miller Jr. in A Canticle For Leibowitz (copyright 1959; issued in 1960), one of the finest novels of science/speculative fiction ever written, winner of the Hugo Award (1961), and a book that has never been out of print since its initial publication, with countless printings, reissues, translations, and adaptations since released.

The novel began life as three short stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 1955-57. The magazine was not a cheap rag featuring wild spaceship rides and aliens. It was "high-class sci-fi pulp," according to novelist Walker Percy. Miller added connective tissue and an enormous amount of additional material to provide  layers of complexity and depth when adapting the stories to  a full-length novel. There is much symbolism to decode, and a lot of Latin and a little of Hebrew to translate. A knowledge of the Old and New Testaments is helpful. We are, to a large degree and to the point, as mystified as the friars.

Though radical, it's not too far an imaginative leap from what is currently occurring  in general and in the contemporary rare book scene in particular.

The cultural climate is changing, moving away from the printed word and the book. A grass-roots movement of the angry and intellectually inchoate is challenging education, politics and the complexities of modern life to return to a plainer, more homey, and neatly arranged order, a return to once dependable certainties that have weakened if not wizened and died within the exponential growth of information and its availability.

There are fewer and fewer rare book shops; they appear to be headed for extinction. More than a few rare book dealers these days have little idea about the intellectual content of the books they sell; they've never read the books for pleasure or learning. They know the book's sales history, bibliographical minutia, and place within the collecting world. The book is a commodity and not much more.

Fewer and fewer enter the trade with a sense of vocation. And it is a calling, involving sacrifice of long hours for (mostly) income unequal to the effort, study, and thought. A love of learning for its own sake is important; the professional rare bookseller is in a constant state of learning about the books they offer; it's  always  wise to  know  more  about  the books you sell than the people you sell them to.

 21st century rare bookseller at work cataloging his stock.

And the modern rare book shop is a monastery. Silent, save for some quiet music in the background or telephone murmurings, employees sit at their desks, pouring over the books in front of them like medieval scribes, carefully examining and cataloging them. It is the rare pilgrim who enters a rare book shop in 2010.

For his efforts, Leibowitz is canonized by the Church. But while there are no saints in the rare book trade there are many whose dedication and commitment to books is holy, the books on their shelves held in a sacred trust from the past through the present and into the future, the evidence of humankind's progressive striving toward enlightenment and deep understanding of who and what we are, the world we live in and its nature, and how we fit into it.

Rare book sellers and special collections librarians are members of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, brothers and sisters in service to books, their preservation, availability, and the knowledge and wisdom that they provide. And book collectors are the laity of the Order, a congregation of pilgrims who privately preserve the written products of the collective mind of humanity.

Now, dark forces with loud, strident voices, wearing light and bright-colored clothing wish to return to those halcyon days of yesteryear, an imaginary place where all was right, before  folks too smart for their and our own good  took over, when advances in human knowledge were never a threat to moral and social certainties, and textbooks didn't need to be corrected to excise dissonance and assure consonance with long-held traditions that often come up short when weighed against the drive of human curiosity and the inexorable march of intellectual inquiry and its integrity.

 Albertus Magnus (1193 CE -1280 CE).
Detail of fresco by Tommaso da Modena, c. 1352.

It is no accident that Miller chose the friars of the abbey of Leibowitz to be of the Albertian Order. Saint Albertus Magnus was the  medieval Dominican bishop and philosopher renowned for the breadth and depth of his knowledge and belief in the peaceful coexistence of science and religion; there was no conflict. It is ironic that A Canticle For Leibowitz takes place in and around Texarkana. Miller could not have foreseen that one day the Texas School Board would vote to revise educational standards and public school textbooks to reflect a wishful reality  rather than the one bequeathed by rational human  investigation. It is a dishonest truth lit by a dimming torch that will extinguish if the goal is reached, leaving a darkness the torchbearers will call light and celebrate.

It's a post-apocalyptic world, the apocalypse born not of powerful nuclear arms but of hamstrung intellectual legs.

MILLER, JR. Walter M. A Canticle For Leibowitz: A Novel. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1960. First edition. Octavo. 320 pp. Publisher's cloth. Dust jacket by Milton Glaser.

National Book Award winner Walker Percy declared A Canticle For Leibowitz "a mystery: it's as if everything came together by some felicitous chance, then fell apart into normal negative entropy. I'm as mystified as ever and hold Canticle in even higher esteem."

It is a modern masterpiece.

The header photo is of Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery, Chamas River Valley, New Mexico.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely and moving introduction.
    But aren't the employees "poring" over the books? Best to save the pouring for the tea at the end of the day...


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