After a nuclear holocaust, the world and humanity attempt to recover. Many people suffer horrible and painful mutations. Culture, technology, science and reading are met with hostility as these are seen as the cause or catalyst of the destruction. A man named Leibowitz attempts to create a secret religious order, charged with the duty of preserving knowledge and books.
This book chronicles the span of 26 generations of the order, from the dark days of knowledge after the war, through a renaissance, and up to the end of human life on Earth. There is an enduring struggle between the monastery, passing governments and the religious head in the Papal state. There is also a struggle between religious and secular ethos, especially when it comes to euthanasia of mutants. One particular story focuses on the struggle of a woman and her infant, both mutated and in horrible pain. She eventually chooses to end their suffering because she believes there can be no good in the suffering of her child who can understand only its pain.
There is a wandering character who lives throughout all these ages, appearing at key moments to key players in history. He seems to be perpetually waiting. The legend of the Wandering Jew is all but forgotten to modernity. It is the legend of a Jewish man, often who has cursed or denied comfort to Jesus, who is fated to endure eternity until the Jesus returns to Earth. The legend is also seen as an allegory of the stateless Jewish population in Europe during the middle ages. However, the identity of the wandering Jew is confused with the Saint Leibowitz, who was himself a late convert to the church.
I avoid religion in fiction because it is painful to read amateur interpretations of religious literature. I am a pathetic snob but I am also an academic and my speciality is modern Jewish thought. But I loved the religious elements of this book. It is charmingly ironic that scientific knowledge is entrusted to a religious society. Actually, I suppose this is not ironic at all but an example of Miller's use of cyclical time events. Despite the hope of the crew on the starship, the tiny ark carrying all terrestrial knowledge, we know they are doomed to repeat history.