Books on GIF #25 — 'Siddhartha' by Hermann Hesse


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'Siddhartha' by Hermann Hesse.


Many people have told me they read this book in high school. But I first read it two years ago and was deeply moved. The character Siddhartha and his quest for knowledge resonated so powerfully with me because of my own life choices: first, to study philosophy, and second, to become a journalist. A philosopher and a journalist share a mission: to try to understand the world in order to help others make sense of it, too. Things haven't made much sense to me recently for a variety of reasons, and last weekend when I was figuring out what to read this week, I looked at my stack of books in hope there was something there that could help. Then 'Siddhartha' popped into my head. It called to me from the bookshelf like:

For those of you who haven't read it, this book tells a parable of Siddhartha, a restless man from a noble family who's on a quest for knowledge. First he becomes an ascetic and lives for years in the forest as a beggar. Then he takes up with the followers of a holy man. Then he meets a woman and becomes a successful businessman to woo her. Years later, disgusted with wealth, he casts aside the finer things to become a simple ferryman shuttling people back and forth across a river. And finally, as an old man, he achieves enlightenment. The book draws as much from Buddhism as it does from Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Siddhartha is a kind of Nietzschean

but a superman whose will is not to power, but to wisdom. 'Siddhartha' contains many lessons. One of the things I love about this book is that it shows how people can grow and change their thinking and actions over time by acquiring wisdom through lived experience. It makes me think of people like:

Siddhartha also warns against becoming self satisfied, lazy and too caught up in the rat race of what society views as success. Getting ahead can be soul killing, and, after Siddhartha becomes a successful businessman, he realizes that he's deeply miserable and contemplates throwing himself in the river to die. (Who among us has not felt this way?) He doesn't do that. Instead, he remembers a valuable lesson that also was articulated in 'Fight Club' —

— and so he leaves all his money and possessions behind, takes a nap on the riverside and wakes up refreshed and focused on self care and renovating his interior and spiritual life. And as he does that he discovers what I think is the most important lesson from this book: The importance of listening.

He listens most closely to the river, which is a metaphor for existence and time. From the river he learns that the world is beyond good and evil (I told you, there's a lot of Nietzsche here), meaning basically that love, sin, knowledge, ignorance, life, death and so on all exist but are arbitrarily categorized and given meaning by people. The point of listening is to get beyond human entanglements to see core truths. I can't tell you what they are. The point of the book is that no one can. You have to find out for yourself by living life and trying really hard to take time to be still and to listen.

The world isn't going to change if we all stay shacked up in our Facebook echo chambers. We have to get out there, expose ourselves to new things and ideas, be challenged, become more well rounded and to actually listen to each other. This goes for everybody.

'Siddhartha' by Hermann Hesse was originally published in 1922, and in 1971 by Bantam Books. 152 pages.

My rating:

What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'Men Explain Things to Me,' by Rebecca Solnit, 'The First Bad Man,' by Miranda July, and 'The Blind Assassin,' by Margaret Atwood, among others.

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Thanks for reading!*


* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!