In total, I've read Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz three times. Well, that's not entirely accurate. My first reading happened in high school, and it fell apart when the character I thought was the protagonist unexpectedly took an arrow right between the eyes. That this bumbling yet likeable monastic candidate struggling to eke out his life in a radiation-scorched wilderness could die completely threw me. What in the world was Miller thinking? I had no idea and quit.
My second attempt occurred during college when Canticle showed up on the syllabus for one of my Lit classes. Unfortunately, the professor who assigned it had a gift for making even the best books dull. While I finished Canticle, I still didn't come any closer to grasping it. Miller ends every section by killing a decent character in a terrible way and then leaping forward hundreds of years. To my way of thinking, such abrupt shifts brought the plot to a grinding halt.
The third time I picked up Canticle came last week, at the urging of a friend who also politely lent me a copy. And this time something was different. Perhaps it had to do with my more mature (read "older and grayer") perspective. Perhaps familiarity with its structure helped me digest Miller's themes. Whatever the case, I slowly began to grasp what he was trying to do. He wasn't primarily interested in dealing with characters; he was interested in civilizations, the ideas that lead to their flourishing and those that contributed to their demise.
I'll wager that most of us would like for well-written books to reveal the treasures to us from the get-go. I know I often do. But sometimes authors like to layer subtlety upon subtlety and go for the slow reveal. The end result is much like a slice of striated sandstone: You discover something new no matter how long you keep digging. With its countless biblical allusions, references to Catholic liturgy and nods to obscure mythology, Canticle certainly fits that bill. This time around, I finally made it through the topsoil, and I'm sure there's quite a lot waiting farther down.
(Hat Tip: B. Nagel; Picture: CC 2006 by Ozyman)