January Term junior year, I believe it was. Modern German Literature in Translation.
I was a painfully slow reader back then. Knowing I’d never get through nine novels in one month, I perused the campus bookstore before Christmas break for the most magnum opus on the class list. And there I met my fate—Herman Hesse’s masterwork, Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game.
It’s a futuristic novel in which an order of monastic intellectuals perfects a game that synthesizes all forms of abstract knowledge. It’s also one of the foremost unreadable “great” novels in all of literature—or, in my own translation, 520 pages of soul-crushing misery.
I read the whole ponderous thing. Knowing my father would mock me for studying over holiday break, I holed up in my room, where Magister Ludi and I no doubt cut a lonely but comic figure, should anyone have been watching.
Of course, where misguided efforts go, irony follows. On the first day of class, the professor—nice guy, bushy beard, clinically bad breath—announced that he’d assigned too much reading and was dropping a novel from the list. I hardly need to say which one.
I have my copy of Magister Ludi still, on much the same urge that drives strange men to save their kidney stones in jars. But the experience taught me much. It taught me the perils of being a too-sincere student. It taught me that my fondness for reading could weather a hard kick to the groin. And it stuck a fork in my budding literary pretensions and sent me looking for books I could dance to.
Look for another installment of The Book That Smacked Me Upside the Head next week!