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Slow, and not an easy read, but ultimately worthwhile if you persist
on 14 February 2015
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.