The Glass Bead Game (or Das Glasperlenspiel or Magister Ludi) by Hermann Hesse
The Glass Bead Game (1943), written by Hermann Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, is a finalist for a Retro Hugo Award this year. I picked up the audio edition produced by Blackstone Audio and pleasantly read by David Colacci. It’s more than 21 hours long.
The first section of the novel, which lasts 1.25 hours in the audiobook version, is titled “The Glass Bead Game: A General Introduction to its History For the Layman.” In this section, the book’s narrator explains why this book was written, some general problems with published biographies, and some history and background of the Glass Bead Game, including its origin and purpose and how it was responsible for changing culture. (How the game is played is something we never actually learn — we just need to understand that it’s an abstract and intellectual game requiring high levels of intelligence, education, and creativity.) From the perspective of “we moderns,” and with many examples, the narrator criticizes the intellectual pursuits and cultural decay of the 20th century. (This critique is, of course, the real purpose of this introductory essay.)
After finishing the introduction, I thought I was going to have to give up on The Glass Bead Game. It is excessively dry, pedantic, and cynical, and I didn’t relish the thought of 20 more hours of it. I’m glad I pushed through, though, for the content and tone switches abruptly as we move on to the section called “The Life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht.”
In this biographical section, which constitutes most of the book, we meet an orphan named Joseph Knecht who was recognized as a promising young musician and given scholarships to attend Castalia, the most elite of educational institutions. He eventually rose to become the Master of the Glass Bead Game, the highest of academic positions. But during the process he gradually began to question the ethics of pursuing intellectual achievement that was disconnected from the rest of the world.
For many readers, The Glass Bead Game will not appeal. There is not much plot, excitement, tension, or action. It’s mostly about education and the evolution from student to teacher. It tends to be slightly dry and academic. However, since I happen to be a slightly dry academic, I did find The Glass Bead Game surprisingly appealing. As a college professor, mentor, developer of courses, and creator of a new curriculum at my institution, I found much to think about. I particularly enjoyed the examples, thoughts, and discussions about how studying changes the mind, the importance of being broad-minded and having multiple intellectual interests, the joy of mentoring students, the difference between teaching and educating, the delight of teaching students at different levels, and the method of focusing and training the mind through meditation.
An important point of the The Glass Bead Game is to denigrate the “Ivory Tower.” What use is the personal pursuit of intellectual achievement if academics are walled off in their institutions and don’t apply their knowledge and skills to alleviate the ills of the larger society? Hesse challenges these elite institutions to be partners with, rather than escapes from, the outside world, and to connect their studies with history, politics, and public health.
Readers who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and thinking about the purpose of knowledge will probably get the most out of The Glass Bead Game, but it’s not all about education. Other things to think about include how our relationships change as we grow older, how our character and thoughts reciprocally influence each other, how we develop the ideals we choose to champion, the purpose of courtesy and hierarchy, how we view and interact with various institutions in our society, and how those institutions require a collective dedication to upholding their morality.
Despite being set in our far future, The Glass Bead Game feels hopelessly old-fashioned. The settings mostly include academic institutions and monasteries where girls and women, as well as people of color, are non-existent. The story is full of intellectuals, but all of them seem to be white men. Characters mostly walk instead of taking cars (even long distances), they write letters instead of calling, emailing, or texting (or whatever we’ll be doing 200 years from now), and there are no signs of any forms of other high technology. It feels much like A Canticle for Leibowitz (which I loved) except that it doesn’t acknowledge a regression from a former higher state of culture and technology. None of this is surprising considering that the novel was written by a German man in the 1930s, but I’m perplexed about his choice to set his story in the far future. It was occasionally jarring, but I didn’t find it too difficult to just pretend that the setting was in our past instead of our future.
I found The Glass Bead Game challenging, thought-provoking, and interesting and recommend it to readers who are in the mood to do some thinking, and especially to those who are educators.