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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Glass Bead Game (Vintage Classics)
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95 of 97 people found the following review helpful
on 6 September 2000
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.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 21 January 1998
The Glass Bead Game should be required reading for anyone interested in the price of pursuing a "life of the mind." Bringing together all of the aspects of the aesthetic life in the growth of the main character (Knecht), the book asks the central question: shall one give up living in the world as a result? The demands of chasing wisdom while addressing the needs of day to day living pre-occupied Hesse throughout his literary life. This predominant theme of his work reaches its culmination in The Glass Bead Game. It is a novel of exrtaordinary beauty and life...few pieces have ever reached deeper into the wellsprings of what it means to be "alive in two worlds."
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 5 January 2001
More complex than his earlier books. Read 'Narziss & Goldmund' first, where similar themes are developed as separate characters, and this will make much more sense. The other main books: 'Damian', 'Steppenwolf', 'Siddartha', explore/describe singular ways of living rather than the deep personal conflict here - read them before or after, as you like. This is the greatest novel about the pursuit of the aesthetic life, its rewards and cost, ever written - I think.
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on 6 April 2006
The Glass Bead Game (1943) is a confounding but fascinating SF novel/biography/spiritual treatise.
Hesse (1877-1962) was born in Germany, a rebellious - and, for a period, apparently mentally-ill - son to a pair of missionaries who rejected theological education in favour (eventually) of becoming a bookseller's apprentice and writer. He became alienated from his homeland during WWI, attracting opprobrium for writing an essay in protest at German militarism and calling upon his fellow writers to stop supporting the war. In 1919 he left Germany for Switzerland, and never returned. He was fascinated by Jung and by Eastern spiritual thought (specifically Buddhism, I think), and travelled in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
The Glass Bead Game, widely seen as his greatest work, is a fictional biography set at some unspecified point in the future. It deals with the life and death of Joseph Knecht, one of the greatest players of the titular Game that the world has ever known, and who rose to become its Magister Ludi (master of the Game).
The Game, we are told in the (narrator's) preface, arose out of an impatience with the frivolity and shallow nature of pseudo-scholarship and mass media/entertainment during the "Age of the Feuilleton" (broadly, an extrapolation of Hesse's own). It was a drive for a purer, higher use of intellectual energy, influenced by Eastern thought; an attempt to find a universal symbolic language through which all scholarly pursuits could be expressed, explored and, ultimately, harmonised: music, maths, philosophy, religion. It began with glass beads strung on wires, like a complex abacus, but soon evolved into a much broader set of representations, becoming,
"[W]hat it is today: the quintessence of all intellectuality and art, the sublime cult, the unio mystica of all separate members of the Universitas Litterarum. In our lives it has partially taken over the role of art, partially that of speculative philosophy."
The novel takes place largely in Castalia, a province given over to the furtherance of the Game, the intellectual pursuits of its players, and the education of future Castalians. This isn't Plato's Republic, though; the philosophers don't manage society for its own benefit with all their considerable intellectual resources. Rather, they leave the world to its own devices, supported by the revenues of an unnamed state and enjoying sole occupancy of their province. They maintain a monastic existence in their favoured little world, eschewing worldly attachments and devoting themselves to the life of the Mind.
The tale of Joseph Knecht takes us through all levels of this rarefied world, from young Joseph's first introduction to the Music Master who teaches him a new way of listening to music and is his first mentor, through his intellectual growth and development, his conflicted (and always unequal) relationships with friends and teachers, and his discovery of the value of meditation, up to his appointment as Magister Ludi, and beyond. It's a dazzling, inspiring world - albeit one with nary a woman in sight (only men can play the Game, it seems). It's also a terribly isolated one, anchorless in undifferentiated time, devoid - as the Benedictine monk Father Jacobus helps Knecht to see - of context, of contact, of a true awareness of the outside world and what it means. Of history. It occurs to me now that this may be a reason behind the unspecified timeframe.
In the course of the telling, Hesse naturally plays all sorts of games with the biographical format - a genre that, we are told, is distinctly frowned upon in Castalian culture for its tendency towards both hagiography and needless wallowing in the psychological 'roots' of its subjects. The prose thus strives for dry detachment, modelled on what we later learn is the Castalian authorities' 'house style' - impersonality to the extent of burying the narrator within a first-person plural viewpoint. Nevertheless - as probably will surprise no-one - even as he/they evince a fastidious disdain for such philistine practices, the narrator(s) can't help but indulge in all the traits described as lamentable about biography: psycho-analysis, speculation, foreshadowing, direct speech; even the exploration of Joseph's own thought processes. It's something of a comfort in the midst of this alien society.
The narrator draws back, however, when the climax of the novel approaches: Joseph's decision to leave his position, his responsibilities, and Castalia itself, behind. What remains is legend, we are told; only the bare facts, such as are known, can be presented. (There is a little more, but I don't want to spoil the very end). The reader is left to reach their own conclusions. For my part, I see it as an admission that the life of the Mind cannot exist in such rarefied air, forbidden contact with the world that produced and still nurtures it, without becoming stagnant - but your impression may differ...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This is an 'intellectual' novel - wordy, ponderous and not an easy read. You need to concentrate a fair bit, and it's not an escapist or 'fun' book. I found it particularly slow and difficult at first - the initial section, where the concept of the glass bead game is introduced, is particularly hard going. It does improve once the protagonist is introduced and the story proper starts. Over the course of its 300 plus pages of story (there are another 100 or so of the poems and essays of the fictitious hero after that, which you can skip if you wish) I grew to respect and even like the novel.

It is an unusual concept for a book and unashamedly thoughtful and philosophical. It is presented as a biography of a fictitious person, living in a sort of non-religious monastic community in a low-tech future. The novel charts his rise from talented schoolboy to one of the highest officials of 'Castalia', and of a life-changing decision he then makes. This central character, Joseph, is a likeable one, although the liking dawns on you gradually due to the slow pace of the story. There are also plenty of interesting and sympathetic supporting characters.

Although it's set in the future, I don't see this as a science fiction or fantasy novel. There are no gadgets and they don't seem to have access to anything more than people in the mid-20th century in terms of technology. This may be partly due to the Castalian community being rather cut off from the everyday world. The geography and history, and the current affairs, are kept carefully vague. It is neither dystopian nor utopian. It is a very deep book, touching themes such as the value of intellectualism and the importance of the individual versus the collective. I did find some insights here that made me think about my own life and the way I live it.

So I would cautiously recommend this book, even though I found it quite hard work to read. It was ultimately rewarding of my patience (and the actual story isn't quite as long as the page number would have you believe). It is not fast paced, there is no action to speak of. There are plenty of long words and the style is almost unbearably dry in places. But it is worthwhile, if you are prepared to put up with those things and persist. If you're curious, do try it - just select a time when you are prepared to read a 'heavier' book. It's not nasty or gloomy, in fact it's quite a 'positive' sort of story, so it won't make you unhappy. But it isn't a light read or something to read in a distracting environment.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 29 September 2011
The Glass Bead Game is set in an indeterminate future, a long time after the century of wars, also described as the age of the feuilleton, a time of shallow and fruitless individualism, our time. Scholarship has resumed its rightful place in society, a place at the same time of power and elevation and of humility before knowledge. And at its apex, or rather apart from it, are Castalia and a group of sister organisations which, around the world, practice the glass bead game. The game itself is not described, except that it is a play on a synthesis of science, music, and the arts, an attempt to touch at universal truths by sounding echoes between the disciplines. Its disciples, to match their dignity, vow celibacy and poverty much like the religious scholars of old, Western, Chinese, or Hindu.

The book is shaped as a bibliographical report from Castalia's own archives, complete with documentary attachments. This makes for a very slow pace, and for a whole that leaves much detail obscure. The Glass Bead Game is, voluntarily, tough-going up to well into its first half. It is as if Hesse scorns in advance his reader's expectations for an easy and entertaining piece, expectations that rightly belong to the age of the feuilleton. But the design becomes clearer, and a deep inner tension emerges as the novel progresses. Joseph Knecht, whom one follows through childhood, then a brilliant period of study, and various ambassadorial missions all the way into the glass bead game's high priesthood, is beset with doubts. And set against him is Plinio Designori, friend and admirer but the scion of a family of politicians who, unlike Knecht, has chosen to grapple with a fate in the real world. Knecht comes to worry about the durability of Castalia, and about the very value of cultural pursuits so cut off from their historical mainstream. The book closes with a set of poems by Knecht, and with three lives he purportedly wrote in his student years, balancing the destinies of sages with the temptations of worldly pursuits in various settings: stone-age, early-medieval Christian, and Hindu.

The Glass Bead Games asks questions and sets problems rather than provide ready-made answers. It is a meditation on the roles of culture and study in society and on the value of philosophical knowledge. Hesse also asks whether culture can or should be considered to be historically independent from politics and its social conditions, an interesting question in the light of the recent rehabilitation of culture in political history-writing. And his novel delves into the nature of education and the relationship between master and apprentice. Knecht is increasingly portrayed as a prisoner in a cherished tower of glass. The question is whether he can escape without shattering it. Demanding but subtle and resolutely un-categorical, this novel is to be read by anyone who has a vocation or interest of any kind in academic, artistic, or scholarly pursuits.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 16 October 2010
Like nothing I've ever read before. The presumably fictional but utterly convincing biography of Joseph Knecht, the man who in the 23rd Century becomes Magister Ludi (Master of the Game) in the Kingdom of Castalia, an elite community who preserved the integrity of humanity when it dissolved into anarchy and dangerous superficiality centuries earlier. Castalian's are the intellectual elite of their society but they no longer create, rather they study earlier cultural achievement and play the Glass Bead Game, a game that is never completely defined but appears to be an intellectual exercise in pure brilliance of the mind. The Glass Bead Game taught me a lot both about the need for me to become more centred and the value of meditation, and also the implicit dangers of intellectualism and seperatism.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 11 May 2009
I first read 'The Glass Bead Game' in my late teens, and it left a lasting if vague impression. I very very rarely reread books - being of the opinion that life is just too short - but twenty-odd years later I felt compelled to revisit it, if only because I remember it being a very 'grand' and mysterious book, and because I could remember so little about it.

What a strange experience it was. I'm a lot older and a little wiser than I was back then, so the impression it made on me was less of awe and more of wonder. Specifically, I kept wondering why on earth Hesse wrote it? What, exactly, was its point? I found it maddeningly discursive, didactic, amibiguous - and yet nonetheless 'a great novel'.

That said, I could only imagine what a modern day agent or editor would make of it. There is little plot to speak of, and it's almost impossible to discern whether Hesse intended it as satire or homage or just plain narrative. The sudden and untimely end of the protagonist seems to leave the story in mid air, and then, almost as an afterthought, Hesse tags on three short stories, in the guise of Joseph's posthumous writings.

I found the novel fascinating, but its meaning rather obscure - although Hesse's fascination with Eastern religion comes through as a strong theme, particularly towards the end. So ultimately I'm left wondering what on earth I do think about this book, other than it is perhaps as flawed, perplexing and bewitching as life itself.
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on 30 January 2012
I read this after a recommendation from [...] It is a wonderful book that depicts a future society in a few centuries time long after a Century of Wars (now I assume) but unlike any future you've previously read about. The society appears more stable and sustainable than our society with few mentions of cars or trains, most travel is done on foot. An epic story of the main character, Joseph's, life in which he rises to the top of an isolated and protective scholastic World of Elite Schools (Castalia) through his considerable academic and inter-personal skills. Castalia appears eternal, never changing and built on rock solid foundations. Castalia is isolated, both physically and intellectually, from the rest of the society in a deliberate attempt to avoid the pollution of academic endeavor by politics and business?, however, this has meant that it has grown ever more detached and incomprehensible to the rest of society other, though students deamed to have failed and returned to the real World as teachers.

Through Josephs studying of Eastern philosophies and the historical context of Castalia he sees great danger to Castalia and sees the arc of its slow decline, although everyone else is unaware of this danger. Personally, how he and the ruling elite of Castalia are able to approach this decline seems to be instructive in the way we approach our current World problems.

This imaginery World is beautifully depicted. The book is filled with an exploration of important issues though characters Josephs meets thoughout his life.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 26 July 2004
I read this novel with fascination when I was a student (in the late 70's) and was captured by it's themes of study, intellectualism and their relation to the 'real world'.
As a forty-something I've just re-read the work; this time I picked up the human struggle around the purpose and meaning of these things.
Do people still read these types of novels - I hope so.
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