The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943) is one of my favourite books of all time, written by one of my favourite authors of all time.
This book blog is really for my own reference - a way to document the through-line from one book to the next, to see how one theme or idea leads to the next. It’s been a while since I read it, so it made sense to go back to one of my favourites for my first book of 2016.
Roughly, The Glass Bead Game tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a gifted boy who becomes an important scholar and then faces some difficult choices about what he wants out of life. It’s set in the future, at a time when academia has the trappings of religion, scholars live a cloistered life dedicated to meditation and study, and there is a delicate political balance between the state and the scholars of “Castalia”.
Throughout the book, Knecht is caught up in the tension between pursuing scholarly achievement and engaging with the imperfect world. Castalia offers Knecht an opportunity to study and observe and explore (perhaps even attain) perfection, but it also prohibits him from creating anything new.
Favourite Scene/ Quote
Knecht, visiting the reclusive “Elder Brother” is told:
"Anyone can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt that the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world in his bamboo grove.”
The introduction is a tough slog. It is brilliantly written and emulates the dispassionate, scholarly tone you would expect from a Castalia-trained author. It sets the tone for the world perfectly, but you’ll be forgiven if you find it dry.
The ending is open to much interpretation, and I read it completely differently this time. Funny how that can happen.
And, of course, I love the notion of the “Glass Bead Game” and the idea of developing a different, visual “language” to articulate complex patterns and concepts. If there was an artistic equivalent of sic-fi (“art-fi”?), in which an entirely new art form becomes the foundation of the narrative, then this is what Hesse has done. I doubt there’s enough action for the fantasy/ sci-fi fans, but the world-building and alternate history techniques are very similar. That’s part of the brilliance that brings me back to this book over and over again.
I left this book feeling like I wanted to read about a real-life person who had chased “perfection” and artistic achievement.