The Glass Bead Game is set in Castalia, an intellectual utopia of the future, where scholars, having cut themselves off from the rest of the world, are free to immerse themselves in the unadulterated pursuit of knowledge.
The Glass Bead Game itself is the embodiment of this community's ideology. It is a game in which contestants attempt to establish patterns of commonality between seemingly disparate intellectual fields. Although the emphasis within the novel is that it is an essentially aesthetic pursuit, it is a fascinating idea that is increasing relevant in modern science with physicist search for the 'theory of everything' and the application of chaos theory to increasing number of apparently unrelated systems.
Although Herman Hesse was something of a sixties icon, and despite its frequent reference to Eastern mysticism, to my mind the sentiments of this book are decidedly anti-hippie. The author is warning us that any community that doggedly pursues it ideology at the expense of the world at large is at risk of becoming stagnant, inward looking, and ultimately decadent and irrelevant. It is a call to pragmatism, as valuable today as it has ever been.
After reading Steppenwolf, which I found a turgid and difficult read, I came to this novel with some trepidation. However, despite it's philosophical overtones and being written in the style of a biography, The Glass Bead Game is far from a struggle to read and you quickly find yourself being drawn into the life of the protagonist. Consummately written, the Glass Bead Game is a fascinating and thought provoking book which will stay with you long after you've put it down for the last time.