Well, scholars, we apologize for not quite meeting the assignment deadline. One of us had a catastrophic computer failure causing major hair-pulling and retyping. In short, the computer ate our homework. :) So, here we are one day late, but not a blessed word short with our response to partner posting assignment number 9. We hope you enjoy it.
Martha Durgy and Spring Lea Boehler
Fiction Books: Why should they be included on the recommended reading list?
Books on a recommended
reading list for graduate level work should cover material of educational
value pertaining to the field of study, or they should encourage the students
to think in ways conducive to higher levels of reasoning. Although
nonfiction titles are an obvious means to deliver such material, fiction
titles as well can be a very valid vehicle. Two fiction titles that
are on the recommended reading list for Emporia State University’s Masters
of Library Science (MLS) students are Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles
and Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz. These books definitely
belong on the list because they deliver high concepts in parable form.
Bradbury’s contribution belongs on a list geared for MLS students because it addresses some of the very basic components of philosophical thinking which is one of the pillars underlying library science. Specifically, the book attempts to answer the three key questions, “What does it mean to be human?” “What is real?” and “How does a person know something?” Although there is not one, single answer for these questions which can represent every person’s unique view of life, Bradbury fairly clearly demonstrates his personal answers. He does so through a series of vignettes, which speculate what would happen if humans were to land on Mars and intermingle with a preexisting sentient culture.
The first question, “What does it mean to be human?” Bradbury addresses throughout the book. However, he poses the question slightly differently by taking it to a higher level and asking, “What does it take to be a good human?” “Good,” to him, is a human that values balance. It is a person who takes art and science; religion and reason; and animal instinct and higher thought in equal doses. Bradbury demonstrates this opinion most clearly in the final vignette, “October, 2026: The Million Year Picnic.” In this story, a family travels to Mars in refuge from war torn Earth and denounces their “humanity” to become “Martians.” Although on the surface this change seems merely semantic --they do not undergo any physiological changes--Bradbury uses the character of the father to explain that being “Martian” will mean much more than simply living on Mars. He says:
Life on Earth never settled
down to doing anything good. Science ran too
far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical
wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters,
rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead
of how to run the machines (Bradbury, 1946).
This shows us that Bradbury
thinks most humans are irresponsible in their approach to progress.
It is meant to warn the reader against weighing too heavily on technological
advances and rely on wisdom and clarity of thought as a guide through life.
Bradbury plays with the second question, “What is real?” in a plethora
of ways in most of the vignettes. “Play” is an apt word to describe
his treatment of this topic because he uses the science fiction setting
to generate ambiguity. The Martians of the book have the telepathic
ability to create illusions that can seem very real. In one story,
a landing party of humans is taken for illusions by the Martians they encounter
and treated as if they were no more than that. In another, some Earthmen
treat an illusionary landscape as if it were really their surroundings.
But perhaps the best example of Bradbury’s assessment of what is real is
in the vignette, “August, 2002: Night Meeting.” In this passage,
a young man, Tomas Gomez, encounters a Martian on a highway in the middle
of the night. From Gomez’s point of view, he is meeting a phantom,
since all the Martians are supposed
to have died out. As the reader, the inclination is to agree with Gomez until the Martian poses a very interesting question, “You are so certain. How can you prove who is from the Past, and who is from the Future?” (Bradbury, 1946). They begin to debate about whether Gomez is looking on the ruins of the Martian’s city, or if the Martian is meeting Gomez thousands of years after the human cities have crumbled. In the end, the Martian says, “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years” (Bradbury, 1046). It is curious that Bradbury chose the Martian as the mouthpiece of wisdom; this, again, hearkens us back to question number one. Basically, he is saying, here and throughout the book, that reality depends solely on perception. What is perceived to be real will be treated as such, and something or someone that is real can be made less so if the people surrounding the person treat him or her as illusionary. It is an interesting answer to the question, and one that can fill the reader with the dread, “What if suddenly everyone started to treat me as an illusion?”
The third question Bradbury poses and attempts to answer is, “How do we know something?” Three possible methods are through proof or hard fact, through experience, and through reason. Bradbury addresses the effectiveness of each approach in the vignette, “June, 2001: And the Moon be Still as Bright.” In this story, an expedition of Earthmen lands on Mars near a cluster of Martian cities. They discover that out of the five nearby, four have been deserted for centuries, but the fifth had been lived in until a short time ago. In the fifth city, there are thousands of dead Martians, having fallen prey to Chicken Pox brought by a previous expedition. Of the landing party, an archeologist named Spender goes to the Martian cities to try and learn more about the Martian culture. As he assimilates his knowledge, the reader sees that he does so by use of the three methods described above. First, he uses the leftover artifacts, paintings, and tools to determine to what parts of life the Martians
assigned value. Next, he begins to learn to read the Martian language and live in their houses. In this way, he experiences Martian life first hand. Then, he begins to reason how Martian life enabled them to be a more durable, peaceful people than humans. He sums up what he has learned from the three sorts of knowledge as he addresses the captain of the expedition. He says:
Because I’ve seen that
what these Martians had was just as good as
anything we’ll ever hope to have. They stopped where we should have
stopped a hundred years ago. I’ve walked in their cities and I know these
people and I’d be glad to call any one of them my ancestors... They quit
trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended
religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an
investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation
of that miracle (Bradbury, 1946).
This demonstrates his complete
immersion into Martian culture, his extended knowledge of a people that
were dead. The reader is allowed to see in other vignettes the living
Martian culture and proof that Spender is correct. In this way, Bradbury
proves the validity of the three ways of gaining knowledge.
A nonfiction book of philosophy would address these same three issues in a very different way than Bradbury, but might still arrive at some of the same conclusions. Bradbury’s fiction is just the sugar that helps the medicine go down, so to speak. The story of the Earthmen and the Martians is just a way to make the points of philosophy more enticing to readers. It does not detract from the discussion. In fact, in some ways it helps by adding new twists on the questions. By creating a hypothetical race of people that act in different ways than humans, Bradbury allows the reader to exam the human race more objectively and with more detail than might otherwise be possible. All this is what makes the intellectual value of this book as great as any of the nonfiction titles on the MLS students’ reading list.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a huge story. It encompasses 12 centuries of change, the destruction of a civilization that regenerates then returns to self-destruction. There are the rhythms of changing characters and leaders over a backdrop of Roman Catholicism and a society gradually increasing in worldliness. Where we might characterize Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles as working with ontological issues, Miller’s Canticle is grounded in a theology sometimes fundamental but stable, benign, patient, and striving for goodness.
This is a small story as well because it never travels far from a brotherhood of monks cloistered in an abbey in the Utah desert. The philosophy and dogma of Catholicism are an ongoing cohesion for this Order of Albertus Magnus. (Albertus was a teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholar recognized as being the founder of the official Catholic philosophy.) This is a small population of men whose purpose is to collect and preserve the knowledge of the preceding civilization; the one that was destroyed in nuclear holocaust. Here, of course, is the worthiest of reasons to see this book on an MLS reading list. We are engrossed in the events surrounding a group of people that seem to be a lot like librarians! Compelling enough, but what Miller is really doing with this information theme in his story is showing us that though the power of knowledge endures, the value
assigned to that knowledge will change within different historical contexts.
Six-hundred years before we are introduced to the members of Albertus Magnus Order, material and much of human civilization was destroyed when Asia and the United States deployed nuclear warheads aimed at each other. This event occurred in the 1960’s. It was known as the Fire Deluge. The survivors were tortured by their fear and loss. Outraged, they sought murderous revenge on the scientists and inventors who created these weapons. In a feeble attempt to demoralize their attackers, these brilliant men of the time labeled them “simpletons”. Ironically, the insult was embraced by the mob and a mutant form of simplicity became its ideology. The Simplification was in place. Simpletons were the everyman, the citizenry. If they could purge knowledge from memory, mankind would live in a simpler world. He would no longer have the tools for his own destruction. There it was in action: the belief that the knowledge that created nuclear weapons was too powerful to exist and such knowledge was of no value to mankind; better to rid the world of those who possess it.
Chaos ruled, and soon, anyone who was literate was targeted by the Simpletons. Reading and writing were life-threatening skills. Literacy was the enemy. During this pogrom, the Catholic Church sheltered those whose lives were threatened. The Church also became a reliquary for the books and documents of the newly destroyed past.
Alfred Isaac Leibowitz had been an engineer before the Fire Deluge. He fled to the Cistercians to avoid the Simpletons’ threat, and after establishing the fact of his wife’s death, he joined the order and became a priest. Twenty years later he founded the Order of Albertus Magnus understanding that future generations would have no knowledge of their history if books and the people who wrote them were continued to be destroyed. And so it was that novices and monks spent lifetimes memorizing books, copying them, packing them in kegs and burying them in the desert. They dressed in burlap and always carried a book wrapped up and hidden in their garments in the rare chance that they would encounter someone to share it with. The men who carried books to the desert were called bookleggers. Leibowitz took his turn at this work, but was apprehended, tortured, and murdered by the Simpletons. Six-hundred years passed. The few books and documents that remained intact, were collected
and studied at the abbey. No one came to read them. They were called the Memorabilia. There was no place outside the Church where literacy had any purpose.
It was a dark time until a traveler passed near the site of a young novice’s Lenten vigil. Any traveler was a rare occurrence in this desert. Enigmatic, ancient and ageless, dressed in burlap with a rope at his waist, he helped the young novice Francis find the oddly shaped rock he needed to construct his shelter. This was a gesture of thanks from the pilgrim who knew Francis had broken his vow of silence to tell him the monks at the abbey would feed and shelter him. As Francis overcame his irritation at being distracted and continued to gather stones for his shelter, he was surprised to come across the rock of perfect size and shape that the traveler had marked for him with two Hebrew letters. When Francis dislodged the marked rock, it exposed a passageway to an underground fallout shelter that had been sealed shut since the Fire Deluge by an avalanche of rocks. What Francis found were papers and notes penned by the beloved Beatus Leibowitz. Human skeletal remains with a gold tooth in the
skull hearkened back to tales of Emily, Leibowitz’s wife. Her death had never been confirmed because neither her body or a marked grave had ever been found. This had slowed the pace of Leibowitz becoming a priest and could prove to hamper his canonization as well.
Francis was in awe of his discovery. For a brief young man’s moment, he fantasized that it must be that God had chosen him especially to make this discovery, that he would now be made a priest and people would make pilgrimages to this site. Then, allowing an honest reflection, Francis realized that his journey to this vocation had been determined more by grace than his own will, and he would reap his rewards accordingly. He understood that as noteworthy as the new information in his possession was, it would not be the essence of his life.
When Francis returned to the abbey with his relics, he found that what had captured the imagination of the brothers was not the miraculous uncovering of artifacts, but questions about the unusual pilgrim. The papers and objects Francis found in the shelter were sent to New Rome to be studied. Nothing more was said about them. The abbey vibrated with speculation that the old traveler could have been Leibowitz incarnate because of the material of his dress and the impossibly coincidental location of the marked rocks. It had been determined that one of the two Hebrew letters on that rock was an “L”! Further discussion of this subject was forbidden by Abbott Akros. When interrogated by Akros, Francis’s guileless honesty prevented him from denying the possibility that it could be Leibowitz. The old man had acted in a most un-divine manner when he jabbed at Francis with his pointed walking stick. And, he could spit; but Francis had said that after all, he didn’t really know what Leibowitz
looked like, so. . . For allowing this glimmer of doubt, Francis was paddled with a hickory ruler and prevented from taking his vows. Abbott Akros was as a Simpleton. For seven years Francis suffered this punishment while remaining steadfast in his honesty. He was a true innocent. Humility and conviction in the rightness of the life he was living operated as a catalyst for change. Miller shows us that mankind provides the environment for a very troublesome relationship between knowledge and religion. Characterizing it further: the intellect explodes and expands and religion nurtures and contains. The strongest, most benevolent people in Canticle actively engage in this trouble, and, like Francis, synthesize a greater enlightenment.
Possibilities existed, and though they might frighten even the holy and the literate, the tiny wedge of Francis’s courage set change in motion. Leibowitz was canonized, and when that happened, Francis was allowed to take his vows. The Memorabilia was shared and studied, and the knowledge of the Pre Fire Deluge Enlightenment was no longer feared but valued again and used and re-used until 1,200 years later, mankind knew enough of it to destroy itself again in nuclear war. Miller does not leave us with a tidy resolution. He does give us an edgy joust between knowledge and spirituality. His outcome suggests that if we are doomed to repeat our mistakes, we at least have found this opportunity to try it once again. And what of the Canticle for Leibowitz? I think Miller would have us stand in a holy place on another planet and sing to St. Leibowitz a hymn of thanksgiving for knowledge and life.
Along with some measure of philosophical challenges, Bradbury and Miller give us some very good literature. We love fiction. We are two of legions. The best of it induces joy, admiration, inspiration, laughter, contemplation, sadness, comfort, and disturbance. There are wonderful characters. It is allegorical. When we read fiction, we are in the thick of it. That is almost reason enough for fiction to be on an MLS reading list, but a better reason is we students are all different. New ideas, fresh thinking comes to us from many directions. Sometimes it sticks; sometimes it bounces off, and sometimes ideas have the most significance because of the form they are in. Our receptors are different. Some of us will learn the Dewey Decimal System because we read the cataloging textbook; others will learn it because we shelve books.
It was a curious coincidence that we each selected a science fiction novel – well, not so curious when you note that one of our partnership is Spring Lea, self-proclaimed sci-fi nut. This is what we appreciate. People who write science fiction are not charmed by the status quo. They grab the possibilities humankind has created for itself and whisk them off to someplace outrageous; to a new geography or social structure, in a mutant anatomy, powered by a fantastic technology. The distinctly energetic creativity at work in science fiction most often rams right into the issues of change. When it’s good, it’s no walk in the park.
Bradbury, R. (1946). The Martian Chronicles. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Miller, W. (1976). Canticle for Leibowitz.
New York, NY: Bantam Books.