I heard of “The Glass Bead Game” from two very different sources – a discussion about education systems and a training about storytelling. When I saw it on the list of books I can borrow from Bookster (the modern library for companies), I knew it was the moment to take on the challenge of reading it.

The Glass Bead Game in a nutshell

“The Glass Bead Game” is the biography of an imaginary person – Joseph Knecht. He lives in Castalia, a fictional province in Europe that is inhabited only by intellectuals. Castalians form the most elitist layer of the society, and they have 2 missions: to run schools for boys and to play and develop the Glass Bead Game. The action takes place in the future (around the beginning of the 25th century).

glass bead game herman hesse readers high tea

Overall impression

To begin with, I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I find the writing style quite unfriendly, and the philosophical discussions add a layer of complexity that I personally did not enjoy. On the other hand, the overarching theme is very appealing and I really liked following Knecht from childhood to old age.

Storytelling strategy

The story is written as a biography of the main character – from this point of view it reminded me of “The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco“. Herman Hesse, just like Umberto Ecco, adds a mysterious aura to his hero, getting close to having surreal powers.

The approach to telling the story is particularity interesting – the narrator explains that writing the biography was difficult as there are only bits and pieces of information, legends and tales about Knecht. That’s a strategy I really like, it makes the story feel more special and more authentic.

herman hesse portrait readers high tea
Portrait of Hermann Hesse by Landis Blair

Life choices

The path taken by Knecht is a metaphor that can be applied to contemporary times. Feeling trapped into a “world” that does not seem right and wanting to escape is a struggle faced by many people. But how many have the courage to confront the situation and maybe change something about it? In this respect, it’s interesting to know that the book was published “after almost a decade of arduous labor, very much the book of Hesse’s old age, slow‐moving and laden with details” (The New York Times, 1970).

Author’s playground

After reading the book I found out that many characters are inspired by real-life people and their names are word games. To name a few: “Knecht” means servant in German, Fritz is inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, and Thomas van der Trave refers to Thomas Mann who was born in a city situated on Trave River. The name of the province Castalia is inspired by a Greek legend of the nymph Castalia, who was transformed into an inspirational spring.


“The Glass Bead Game” by Hermann Hesse is a challenging tale about purpose, friendship and academic enlightenment. I recommend reading it if you enjoy reading classics, slower-pacing stories, and/or philosophical books.

If you would like to buy books or other (non)bookish things, please consider using one of these links: Amazon | Waterstones | Carturesti. Thank you!

‘Till next time … happy reading!


Author portrait from LandisBlair.blogspot.com | Cover photo by Petr Sevcovic on Unsplash | Book cover from Bookuria.info

2 thoughts on “The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse (book review) – a story about purpose, courage, and mastering the game

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