Weekend Reading: Hermann Hesse’s “Magister Ludi” & Gene Wolfe’s “Interlibrary Loan”

You know I love light weekend reading! I did not forget its importance during a week of praising Ovid’s wife and ambivalence toward The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

No, but really… I could not write about light reading after my experience last weekend! I am still recovering from an attempt to reread the Nobel Prize-winning Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, or Magister Ludi.

Here’s the 1970 edition.

I recently read that The Glass Bead Game is Hesse’s masterpiece. Alas, it is as pompous as I’d vaguely remembered. Weighted down by clunky mysticism and hundreds of pages of stilted explication of a Glass Bead Game that dominates the future culture of a monkish elite, it is not the gem of Hesse’s oeuvre–at least not in English translation.

Another tacky cover!

During the counterculture, Hesse’s popularity in translation was heightened by his portraits of mystical antiheroes who dropped out to find meaning in life. (I mean, Meaning in Life.) We carried around tacky paperbacks with cover illustrations of people wearing funny hats or having orgies. Steppenwolf was my favorite, though I have not returned to it–Why spoil a memory? I even went twice to the movie, starring Max von Sydow.

So if you must read Hesse, save Magister Ludi for last. I read it solemnly as a starry-eyed youth, but it was not my favorite. A few years ago, I did reread Demian, and moderately enjoyed it. It would be a better starting point for Hesse, I suspect.

If you are a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, with a jot of SF, Gene Wolfe’s Interlibrary Loan is for you. It is one of my favorite novels of the year, and I enjoyed it so much that I hugged it at one point. Brilliant! Awesome! And then the ending was so abrupt I had to read it twice, and was still disappointed. But it was his last book, posthumously-published, and the editors could hardly call on him to edit from the grave.

Gene Wolfe, who died in 2019, is best known for the award-winning literary science fiction quartet, The Book of the New Sun. (The New Yorker compared it to Ulysses.) Interlibrary Loan is completely different, short, snappy, and satiric.

The premise is so much fun. In the future, an author’s consciousness can be uploaded as a “reclone” to a book. They walk, talk, eat, feel, look human, but are not deemed human. Patrons can check them out of the library and talk to them, even do research. The author-hero, Ern A. Smithe, a reclone in danger of incineration for being not checked out enough, is pleased to be borrowed on interlibrary loan, along with a witty cookbook writer and a flirty romance writer. But the situation proves problematic: his patron, Adah Fevre, the bedridden psychotic wife of a missing professor, wants him to find her husband, and gets out of bed only long enough to accompany Ern to a mysterious island where her husband does research. What a wild trip that is! You feel that Ern is Dashiell Hammett, recloned with Jules Verne, George MacDonald, and H. Rider Haggard.

This book is excellent for 150 pages or so, and reasonably good until the very end. Flawed but fun. There is an earlier book in this duo, The Borrowed Man, which I hope to read very soon.

Happy Weekend!

The Tyranny of Routine & Three Literary Links

A scene from “The Jane Austen Book Club”

You need to follow a routine.  That’s what they tell insomniacs.  Get up at the same time every day.  Oh, sure, set that alarm for 6 on the weekend.  That will regulate your sleep patterns.

I used to be an insomniac.  I seldom slept more than four hours a night.    In a sitcom,  everyone laughs when the “insomniac” is caught snoring, because it proves that he or she does sleep.   But I used to stay up and read till 1 or 2, and then get up at 5:30 to get to work by 7:30.

My insomnia stopped when I began to work at home.  So the problem was simple:  I  wasn’t a morning person.  Now I get my sleep, and my schedule is flexible.  My motto is,  Get it done.  The time of day doesn’t matter.

Because of the tyranny of routine in the workplace,  I very much enjoyed John Stilgoe’s column in The Guardian, “Is a daily routine all it’s cracked up to be?”  Routines are said to help creativity and productivity, but a study of academic writing habits proved that it isn’t always helpful to write every day.  You may lose your motivation.

Stilgoe writes,

Routines are good. It’s easier to make something a habit if you plan it in advance and do it daily; plus there’s the (controversial) phenomenon of “decision fatigue”, which implies that you should “routinise” as many choices as possible – such as when to get up and what to do first each day – to save energy for others. Some people are so disorganised that a strict routine is a lifesaver. But speaking as a recovering rigid-schedules addict, trust me: if you click excitedly on each new article promising the perfect morning routine, you’re almost certainly not one of those people. You’re one of the other kind – people who’d benefit from struggling less to control their day, responding a bit more intuitively to the needs of the moment. This is the self-help principle you might call the law of unwelcome advice: if you love the idea of implementing a new technique, it’s likely to be the opposite of what you need.


1  Gene Wolfe, a literary science fiction writer, died on April 21.  Last year I wrote at my blog Mirabile Dictu (here) about  The  Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s award-winning quartet, The Book of the New Sun.

And in an article in The New Republic, Jeff Heer calls Wolfe the Proust of science fiction.   He writes,

Wolfe, a celebrated writer of science fiction and fantasy with a deeply Catholic imagination, died on Sunday at age 87. Wolfe was a writer who occupied a unique niche by fusing together three seemingly divergent strands: pulp fiction, literary modernism, and Catholic theology. His four-volume masterpiece The Book of the New Sun (of which The Shadow of the Torturer is the first tome) is an almost indescribable combination of speculative Christian eschatology with a Conan the Barbarian adventure story, written in a prose that can fairly be described as Proustian.

3.  Have you read the 11th-century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu’snovel, The Tale of Genji?  That was my summer project a few years ago.  In The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about the Tale of Genji exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

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