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The Glass Bead Game (1943)

by Hermann Hesse

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6,134891,277 (4.12)216
Set in the 23rd century, "The glass bead game" is the story of Joseph Knecht, who has been raised in Castalia, the remote place his society has provided for the intellectual elite to grow and flourish. Since childhood, Knecht has been consumed with mastering the Glass Bead Game, which requires a synthesis of aesthetics and scientific arts, such as mathematics, music, logic, and philosophy, which he achieves in adulthood, becoming a Magister Ludi (Master of the Game).… (more)
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English (80)  French (3)  Dutch (1)  Spanish (1)  Italian (1)  Danish (1)  Finnish (1)  Portuguese (1)  All languages (89)
Showing 1-5 of 80 (next | show all)
Gave up halfway through.

This has been quite the disappointment. No plot. Nothing happens. Characters I couldn't care less about. Little to no food for thought. Not what I thought it would be.

You would be better off reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem that has a similar setting, a good number of meals for thought, and a proper plot that might actually be too crazy. Oh, and it's much longer than The Glass Bead game is, yet you can see I have no complaints at all! ( )
  nonames | Jan 14, 2022 |
"Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time. It consists, I don't mind telling you in confidence, in putting too high a value on time. I, too, once put too high a value on time. For that reason I wished to be a hundred years old. In eternity, however, there is no time, you see. Eternity is a mere moment, just long enough for a joke." ( )
  volfy | Jun 26, 2021 |
"The summons was stronger than the warning…" (pg. 402)

Just as a bad ending can undo the good work done by a writer in a book, so too can a good ending redeem a writer who had got himself caught in the weeds. The Glass Bead Game, sometimes called Hermann Hesse's masterpiece, is by no means a bad book, but for the most part it is a very challenging one. It is only the beauty of that ending which recast my appraisal of the book, like sunlight breaking over an unpromising morning and burning away the fog.

The Glass Bead Game is the longest of any of Hermann Hesse's major novels, and completely contrary to the crystal-clear brevity evident in Siddhartha, Demian and, to a lesser extent, Steppenwolf. That wouldn't necessarily be a drawback, but when I described it as 'challenging' above, it was not the sort of challenge that seems rewarding as you read it. Seasoned readers of literature can enjoy getting stuck into heavy classics, but this joy wasn't present for most of the book. It can be a slog at times.

The book's premise is interesting; set in the twenty-third century, there has developed an elaborate game known as the Glass Bead Game, and an intellectual hierarchy dedicated to its development. Part university and part monastery, this aristocratic hierarchy is known as Castalia, and we follow our protagonist Joseph Knecht from his youth to his position at the top of this hierarchy. We then follow his thought process as he resigns his post and climbs down, metaphorically speaking, from his ivory tower to find his place in the regular world.

The problem, however, is that until this climbdown towards the end, the book is far from agreeable as a piece of storytelling. Its ideas are often stimulating (and this is always one of Hesse's strengths), but they are buried under a dense morass of prose. There is no flair to the writing (except on the rare occasion when you can isolate a sentence that could serve as an aphorism), and Hesse is constantly building his world, introducing us to new rules of the Glass Bead Game and the hierarchical structure of Castalia even when we're hundreds of pages in. There's no movement to the story, and the reader has to do a lot of endurance work.

I'm still not entirely sure what the Game really is; if it has a physical form, like a chess game, or a metatextual array of symbols, a concept that individual minds can play with, or if Hesse was trying to explain – as an old man in a pre-electronic age – something that we would nowadays recognise as a network, a sort of utopian Internet. Hesse alternates between keeping it vague ("the framework of a universal language… nourished by all the sciences and arts" (pg. 31)) and delving deeply into rules and minutiae that serve as walls to the reader, not gateways to understanding. (It's also worth mentioning, to avoid any doubt, that even though the book is set in the twenty-third century, the sci-fi element is non-existent.)

Knecht, too, lacks anything for the reader to invest in, or at least he lacks it until that final act. By the narrative's own admission, progress through the hierarchy is rather easy for our protagonist (pp142, 179), and so we never really warm to him. Similarly, the Game has no flavour. For all the talk of music and the love of art and science, I was surprised there was no warmth to the writing. Knecht is ill-served by the supporting characters, who are bland, and there is no playing with ideas in the dialogue. Not only is there no movement to the story, there's no movement in the reader's heart when the artistic and scientific knowledge is 'played' with. The book is written in the style of a dry academic text, when a more personal writing style that brings us closer to Knecht might have been to greater effect.

The dissatisfaction from the reader helps engage them later on (though no doubt many will have given up before then), as we share Knecht's quiet disenchantment with the structure of the Glass Bead Game. Hesse is kicking his ball in the same ballpark as Nietzsche and Jung: published in 1943, Hesse warns that "the music of decline has sounded" in society, and though it is set in the future, the academic narrative is sure to mention "the corporal who becomes a dictator overnight" in a previous era (pg. 157). Through Knecht's sometimes didactic arguments, Hesse tells us that intellectuals cannot remain aloof from the world.

But Hesse doesn't necessarily attack the 'ivory towers', and in fact he at one point provides a good riposte to the claims of intellectual arrogance and aloofness: "people in the [regular] world were no less proud of their bad manners, their meagre culture, their coarse, loud humour, the dull-witted shrewdness with which they kept themselves to practical, egotistical goals" (pg. 279). Hesse's book becomes much more interesting at this point, because the author makes his argument not as a political call to arms, but as a philosophical one. Knecht reaches the pinnacle of the Glass Bead Game's hierarchy, but is astute enough to recognise that his continued dissatisfaction needs to be addressed logically. The Game is concerned with seeking truth and knowledge, and the fact that Knecht, at the top of the Game, still wants something more means that whatever that 'something more' is, it must be a further truth, one that cannot be achieved within the Game (pg. 363).

It is impressive that the book finds a second wind, but it's even more impressive that this second wind is original. Rather than Knecht being drawn back into the regular world by a sense of nobility ("giving back" to society) or by a plot contrivance like a romantic relationship (there's scarcely a mention of a woman in the book), he is a genuine seeker, possessed by honest intellectual wanderlust. In that Nietzsche-Jung ballpark, Knecht recognises that the true individual must look backwards to the past, to conserve his culture, and also forwards to the future, the spirit of knowledge beyond the horizon (pg. 343). He develops the "cheerful serenity" (pg. 298) that characterises all the great sages and, recognising the potential for even the illustrious Game to decline and collapse (pg. 256), is determined that "no matter how it turned out, he would do it with serenity and a clean tempo" (pg. 359). That is the only solid resolution a true individual can make when he steps out onto new and uncertain ground.

It is, in truth, tough to engage with all this as you are reading Hesse's dense and esoteric book. But the ending is really rather remarkable, and it compels you to reassess everything you have read. Not as a plot twist or anything like that, but simply because the ending is done with such integrity that it imbues the reader with integrity, and makes you want to think deeply about what you have read, even when most of the book has been tough and you are glad to finish it. And once you do think deeply about the ending, you recognise that the reason it chimes so well is because Knecht has been working towards this from the start – again, not as any sort of plotting mechanism, but because he has been a true seeker. A true seeker doesn't hold themselves to a single philosophy but is open to everything, and because Knecht has always behaved with this mentality, everything that has been done honestly in his life has been seeking that underlying truth. This is what he is able to embrace at the end, with serenity and a clean tempo.

I am referring here to the ending at the lake, with Knecht swimming into truly unknown depths, not the 'Three Lives' addendum with which Hesse really ends the novel. This 'lake' ending is where the book truly ends. It recalls all of Knecht's living, evolving philosophy from the start: we are told on page 72 that "the kind of person we aim to become [in the Glass Bead Game] would at any time be able to exchange his discipline or art for any other". Knecht has become an example of this by the end, though not in the way that his fellow scholars at Castalia would have anticipated. Knecht, in coming down from his ivory tower and exchanging out the Game completely, has become the ultimate epitome of the Game.

Not only that, but this lake ending, and what it means for Knecht's companion in the final lines, shows the underlying interconnectivity between all things that the true seeker embraces. Even Knecht at the end has, in his actions and his final inaction, provided a further lesson for his companion, his student, the one who will continue on to new horizons. The way this is all phrased by Hesse is almost Hemingway-esque in its quiet devastation, reminiscent of A Farewell to Arms. It reshaped my impressions of a book that had seemed a lost cause, an errant slog, and reminded me that Hesse at his best is a quite brilliant writer. Even when that brilliance only shines at full brightness for the final few paragraphs, it proves to be worth it. A sunrise that burns away the fog is worth all the trials of the preceding night. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Jun 23, 2021 |
Hilda Rosner
  cheshire11 | Apr 7, 2021 |
Set in the future, the 23rd century, I think, the setting is Castalia. The story is the last by Hermann Hesse and is called a work of Science Fiction. I don't see the SF part of it but it also can be described as fantasy and fictional biography. It also is full of Hesse's interest in Eastern philosophy and Western religion. The author received the Nobel probably because of this book in 1946. Joseph Knecht is the young initiate into the monastic secular life of Castalia. The men study various subjects and the Glass Bead game links them. The reader is never told how this game works but it involves all knowledge and especially music and mathematics. Knecht eventually leaves the society and the high position of Magister Ludi when he becomes disillusioned with a society that really is not helping society. He then takes on the role of teacher of his friends wild son. The biography section of the book soon ends. The rest of the book is some stories by Knecht which really are short stories. Over all this book did not engage me. I read it and perhaps will read it again some day but so far, I am not hippy enough to enjoy Hesse's writing. This being the second book by the author for me. ( )
  Kristelh | Feb 7, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 80 (next | show all)
> LE JEU DES PERLES DE VERRE, de Hermann Hesse (Calmann-Lévy), n'est pas un roman d'anticipation, mais une exploration de la vie intérieure. Il n'est pas question de savoir si la possibilité, dans un avenir proche ou lointain, de l'établissement d'une province où tous les raffinements de la culture se seraient réfugiés en une sorte de monachisme laïc est purement utopique et si, en réaction contre l'effusion de bestialité et de sottise, le jeu sublime des "perles de verre" peut devenir le symbole du salut de l'esprit humain.
Une utopie contient toujours, même sur un fond de désenchantement, une bonne part d'optimisme ; il n'y en a aucun dans le roman de Hermann Hesse, et la tragédie de son héros, Joseph Valet (ce qui est la traduction du nom allemand du personnage : Knecht), ne nous laisse plus qu'un seul espoir : que toute chose soit illusion, maya, comme disent les hindous, et que l'action ait aussi peu d'importance que la non-action.
Il a paru durant les dix dernières années peu de livres aussi importants que celui-ci ; peu de livres capables de remuer aussi profondément l'inquiétude de tout homme d'aujourd'hui partagé entre la tentation de la sécurité intellectuelle, de la paix spirituelle qu'offre la province idéale de Castalie, à l'écart de tous les orages de la conscience et de la société, et la tentation de participer à la vie émouvante, impure, dangereuse, d'un monde où l'action n'est pas la soeur du rêve.
 

» Add other authors (41 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hesse, HermannAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ausma, TineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bļodnieks, ĢirtsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gregori, ArístidesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gregori, AristidesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Houwink ten Cate, AnnemarieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kaila, KaiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sinervo, ElviTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winston, ClaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winston, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ziolkowski, TheodoreForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Апт, Соломон Константин…Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
. . . For although in a certain sense and for light- minded persons non-existent things can be more easily and irresponsibly represented in words than existing things, for the serious and conscientious historian it is just the reverse. Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that serious and conscientious men treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born. (From Joseph Knecht's holograph translation of Albertus Secundus tract. de cristall. spirit. ed. Clangor et Collof. lib. I, cap. 28).
Dedication
dedicated to the Journeyers to the East
First words
It is our intention to preserve in these pages what scant biographical material we have been able to collect concerning Joseph Knecht, or Ludi Magister Josephus III, as he is called in the Archives of the Glass Bead Game.
Quotations
But now for the first time I had heard the inner voice of the Game itself, its meaning. It had reached me and since that moment I have believed that our royal game is truly a lingua sacra, a sacred and divine language.
One who had experienced the ultimate meaning of the Game within himself would by that fact no longer be a player; he would no longer dwell in the delight in invention, construction and combination, since he would know altogether different joys and raptures. Because I think I have come close to the meaning of the Glass Bead Game, it will be better for me and for others if I do not make the Game my profession, but instead shift to music.
God sends us despair not to kill us; He sends it to us to awaken new life in us.
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Wikipedia in English (1)

Set in the 23rd century, "The glass bead game" is the story of Joseph Knecht, who has been raised in Castalia, the remote place his society has provided for the intellectual elite to grow and flourish. Since childhood, Knecht has been consumed with mastering the Glass Bead Game, which requires a synthesis of aesthetics and scientific arts, such as mathematics, music, logic, and philosophy, which he achieves in adulthood, becoming a Magister Ludi (Master of the Game).

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Book description
Haiku summary
First he learns the rules
Master gamester finds meaning
While losing marbles
(pickupsticks)

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