The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
This literary work is a masterpiece. Arguably, this is the most influential work I've ever read.
The novel's simple plot (that of a German man, Hans, staying in a Swiss sanatorium) is belied by its incredible philosophical depth. Thomas Manns deals with some of the most pressing questions known to mankind, "What is death?," "What is more important, progress or faith?" and "What is the nature of time?"
Thomas Mann discusses all of these themes, and many more, through a wide variety of lenses. Unlike many authors, he does not bring into the novel an agenda. He grapples with these questions with you in real time, whatever "time" is that is. He is, essentially, thinking out loud, and that is perhaps the greatest gift of this novel. It allows us to think alongside a true literary genius.
To briefly list the insights I gained from reading this novel would be do a disservice to them. It would also serve to undermine the greatest effect it has on the reader, which is the subtle influence it has on thinking. However, if my insights lead to even one more person reading this monumental work of literature, then I would be remiss not to.
Time is only as long as we experience it. While that may sound like common sense, what is less intuitive is the idea that the more monotonous your days are, the faster time seems to pass. I always thought that the fast paced nature of our world is what caused time to fly. We are so preoccupied with our daily tasks, that we don't have time to reflect. It is only through self consciousness do we truly start to appreciate time. To the contrary, Mann's claim is that the routine devours time even faster. In fact, reading this novel during the Covid lock-down was very strange. As each day started to blend into the next and it became difficult to tell what day it was, Hans stay at the sanatorium started to mimic my life.
Mann never says precisely what death is, or rather, he says that death is many things. It is both a part of life and the opposite of life. It is both beautiful, and the nasty byproduct of a disease. It is both the easiest thing to explain scientifically, and the most difficult to come to terms with emotionally. If death, or the idea of dying, is what keeps you up at night, then this book will help you ask the questions that you didn't even know to ask and give you different ways of looking at death.
Progress v. Faith. Should we, as a society, prioritize the advancement of our civilization in every way possible, i.g. literature, science, technology. If the purpose of life is to alleviate unnecessary suffering, then perhaps progress is the best way to do so. There is no doubt that medical discoveries have allowed us to live longer while saving many people a lot of pain, literature has allowed us to capture the human condition, and technological advances have provided us opportunities few could have even imagined. However, what if all that is "illusory," as my friend likes to point out, and the only way to live life through faith. Is living your life for progress too materialistic? Should we be more concerned about our souls and spiritual enlightenment? Or should we live life to the fullest instead? To paraphrase one of his character, are we not the sensory organs of God himself, and is not our primary duty in life to feels, taste, and experience as much as we can? Mann, just like with the concepts of "time" and "death," never takes a definitive stand on any of these questions. He too struggled with them, likely, until the end of his life. However, he does, at the end of the novel provide a theory on how to reconcile all of these interpretations.
Overall, it is difficult to overstate how influential this book is. Almost ever sentence is a symbolic reference to the themes and motifs of the novel. John E Woods does a great job of translating this novel and capturing its essence. I could not recommend this book more strongly to anyone who wants to grapple with these questions.