You know what's annoying? That little mosquito-shrill voice in your head that questions you all day long:
How many Twitter followers do you have? Do you think that's enough? And your shoes—huh. Not quite stylish, are they? Maybe it's time for another pair. Your car is already a model behind—wait, what? You don't have a car? Why not? And did you get the new iPhone yet? If you did, are you going to get the next one? You know, they always make a next one. And one after that. And one after that.
You know what we mean.
Some days, it seems like all you have is a parching thirst that can't be satisfied. You want and want and want. You start to believe that "happiness is a moment before you want more happiness." And then you realize that's a quote from Mad Men's Don Draper and wonder why you're thinking the same thoughts as a perpetually unsatisfied, fictional alcoholic.
But he's a perpetually unsatisfied, fictional alcoholic who's really handsome. And makes more money than you do. And has such a nice apartment...
When will you ever be happy with what you have?
This is where Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha comes in. This novel—published in Germany in 1922, but not in America until 1951—is about the quest for enlightenment.
Think about it for a minute. There will always be something new to want, some shiny new bauble that makes us feel bad about what we don’t have. But wouldn’t it be nice to just, you know, be completely and utterly at peace with where you are in the world?
Siddhartha sure thinks so. And, as the protagonist of this novel, he’s on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Luckily, we as readers get to tag along. While his travels through ancient India might not seem too relevant to you today, Siddhartha is after the very essence of what we are all after: happiness. In the case of this book, true happiness can only come from a deep understanding of our place on this planet, which is a question that’s pretty fundamental to everyone’s existence.
So, it shouldn’t surprise you, then, that this book caught on with readers during the '60s in America, a time when people were really questioning… well, pretty much everything. They were looking for certainty in a world gone mad. Guess what? So are you. We’re all, in some way or another, on a quest to make sense of the world around us, which is what makes this book so important.
Even more important than the next iPhone.
Two words: life experience.
Besides getting a mention on your CV, the idea of "life experience" doesn't get a whole lot of credit. Especially compared to grades, extracurricular activities, placement on varsity teams, awards, raises, promotions, social status, number of Twitter followers, salary...
That list probably activated the angry little mosquito voice in your brain again. It's probably saying, Why don't you make more money yet? Why is your wardrobe outdated? Why aren't you networking right now? More volunteer hours would look great on your resume...
Shut that voice down. Pretend it's a parakeet and put a dang towel over its metaphorical cage.
The difference between life experience and that list of other (also super important) things we just mentioned is that life experience isn't quantifiable. You can't measure the importance of staring thoughtfully at the night sky, or feeling deep compassion for another human, or listening to really great music, or tasting something delicious, or working with total concentration.
But that's where the good stuff is.
That's good news and bad news. The bad news is that life experience is hard to convey. That Instagram post is not really going to express how delicious those frozen raspberries were on a hot August day, and that Tweet is not going to get at the human connection you inexplicably felt with that one dude on the airplane.
In fact, not even the greatest novel is going to express that. Not perfectly.
But there are some novels that are going to shake you to your core with the desire to go out and live life consciously. And that doesn't mean you have to go eat, pray, and love all over the world. You could just take a minute to really look at the shape of your fingernails.
Siddhartha is one of those novels. We dare you to read this book and then sit back and think "Meh." Instead, you'll probably sit for a second... and then get up and start studying life as intently as if it were your physics notes the day before a final exam.
Siddhartha (don't call him Sidd; he hates that) grows up in a prosperous Brahman family. He’s well-loved, but unhappy despite his popularity. He is spiritually dissatisfied and believes the elders in his community have nothing more to teach him. Siddhartha decides to join the Samanas, who are a group of wandering ascetics. His best friend, Govinda, accompanies him, and the two men spend three years with the Samanas learning how to withstand pain and hunger in an effort to flee the body’s limitations.
Although the two friends learn quite a bit from the Samana way of life, they are still dissatisfied and decide to hear the teachings of Gotama Buddha. Govinda is impressed and chooses to join Gotama’s community of monks. Despite Govinda’s urgings and despite recognizing Gotama as the Holiest Man Ever, Siddhartha opts not to follow Gotama. He decides instead that he’s an independent learner and is done with doctrine. The friends part ways.
Siddhartha travels to a nearby town where he is entranced by the beauty of a well-known courtesan named Kamala. He offers himself to her as a student in the art of love, but is gently rebuffed. Kamala says he needs money, clothes, and shoes. Siddhartha begins working for a wealthy merchant named Kamaswami and becomes Kamala’s lover. For a time, Siddhartha is content with his life and is able to maintain a Samana-like distance from material concerns. Eventually, however, wealth and lust prove too much for Siddhartha. He develops anxiety, self-hatred, and a high-stakes gambling habit. One morning, overwhelmed by his own depression and troubling dreams, Siddhartha walks out of his fancy home and never returns.
After considering suicide and briefly encountering his old friend, Govinda, Siddhartha finds a ferryman and asks to become his apprentice. The ferryman, named Vasudeva, accepts Siddhartha as his companion and together the two men listen to the river. With the river as a spiritual guide, Siddhartha gradually grows wiser and wiser. After allowing his son (by Kamala) to leave the river and follow his own path, Siddhartha achieves enlightenment. Vasudeva passes into Nirvana, and Siddhartha continues to ferry people across the river. He then helps Govinda reach enlightenment.