Book #84: The Glass Bead Game

Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was a really interesting read.

It’s written as an academic retelling of the life of Joseph Knecht, the greatest master of a purely academic society’s greatest achievement – the Glass Bead Game. The plot is almost as hard to describe as the society and Game it involves.

In the future, society has been divided into two classes – the academic-minded who devote their lives to learning and philosophy, and the ‘laypeople’ involved in politics, medicine, and the rest of society. The division is reminiscent of the monastic societies of medieval Europe. Gifted children are chosen at a young age to enter these special schools in Castalia, the academic society.

Joseph Knecht is was a peasant boy who was very gifted in music who entered Castalia and wound up working his way through the strictly regimented learning regime up the strict hierarchical ladder to become Magister Ludi – Master of the Glass Bead Game – the highest rank in Castalia.

The Game is, essentially an exercise in thought and philosophy which tries to synthesize all human learning into one game. The game mirrors the early abacuses used by mathematicians. Everything is boiled down to beads and symbols – an idea, generally philosophical or musical in theme, is introduced as the opening problem to the Game. Then players, using the beads in some undescribed way, state associations and variations on the opening theme, much like musicians alter the main theme of music in compositions.

The rules and mechanics of the Game are never explained throughout the novel, only the Game’s importance in bringing nuance, delicacy, and beauty to the forefront of thought during the annual tournament of the Glass Bead Game that brings together players from all over Castalia.

The story is told in the form of Knecht’s biography. Hesse never loses the academic tone, which fits nicely with the intense, isolating academia that permeates Castalia. It’s hard even to write about the Game and plot of the book without lapsing into the academic vernacular I was used to in college.

This, actually, is part of the point of the book. I got the sense throughout The Glass Bead Game that Hesse was mocking the academic world. In his analysis of a life and the importance placed on the Game and learning as an almost monastic pursuit, rejecting worldly pleasures in favor of strict learning and hierarchy, there is something almost mocking in the tone. Knecht’s life could be (and is!) a great story. But something is lost, a little, with the academic tone. It doesn’t read like an awesome dystopian novel, but instead like a cumbersome biography.

For some people, I think, this could take away from the book. However, I didn’t think so. I enjoyed it and thought it was a bit of a clever commentary on academia, and it was interesting to read this cool story through the academic lens.

Rating: *****
Up Next: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

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