Book Review: “Lost Horizon” (1933)

Books are like gifts, somehow being enjoyed exactly in the right place and at the right time. Rarely have I come across a book that I wish I had read several years earlier, but Lost Horizon by James Hilton happens to be one of those books, though I have a good reason.

I visited Tibet by train in 2007, and while there I learned a great deal about the people, their land, their religious sects, and even a little bit about their history (though admittedly, it was skewed a bit for the sake of political correctness). There were things that I never quite caught, however, one of them being the legends of Shangri La. I hadn’t really any clue at the time about what the place was, though of course I had heard of it and I knew that the Chinese had certainly made a killing off the name and its attached legends. I had even heard of this book in other contexts, but I had never made the connection between it and Shangri La.

The woman who had recommended the book to me was one of those “single-service” friends one meets and chats with on a train until one or the other reaches his destination. She was an old Norwegian woman, traveling alone through a land she’d always dreamt of visiting, but couldn’t as long as her husband was alive. We met on the train leaving Lhasa and then spend our waking hours in conversation as we passed through the Himalayan foothills all the way down into Xi’An, China, where we finally went our separate ways. It could have been romantic, I suppose, had she not been sixty years my senior. Nevertheless, our conversations were fascinating, and she left me with a great desire to read this book. I’m thankful for the recommendation.

The story of Lost Horizon is unique, for the “utopia” recorded here is not one set in the distant past or the distant future. Instead, the Shangri La utopia exists in the present, hidden away somewhere exotic, yet still on our planet. This aspect alone separates the book from all others, but like most utopian or dystopian stories, its philosophies hold the reader’s attention almost more than the beautiful setting in which its delivered.

Throughout the conversations between the haggard British soldiers and the placid Buddhist monks who find them, Hilton takes his readers through difficult and thought-provoking grounds covering such topics as war, morality, religion, laziness vs. hard work, and the virtues of moderation. Which religion Hilton desires to show in the best light, Christianity or Buddhism, is unclear, because Hilton seems to attack both equally. While I don’t know enough about the man to state this as a fact, I think his intent might have been not to attack religion for religion’s sake, but rather to attack those who abuse religion out of selfishness.

When a person uses religion for self-help or self-fulfillment, they’re approaching it selfishly. It’s clear to any true believing Christian, for example, that the purpose of life is to glorify God and the purpose of salvation is to enable us to fulfill that purpose. Yet even Christians can twist this clear biblical teaching into a selfish mold where God wants ME, He died for ME, He saved ME, He desires a relationship with ME, it’s MY personal faith, it’s MY eternity, it’s MY God, the world be damned. It happens more than we like to admit! For example, a woman in my Bible study reads her Bible ten hours a day and her husband is sick of it. It’s not that the man hates the Bible or God, it’s that a version “God” has taken over his wife’s life to the point where her marriage doesn’t matter anymore. Selfishness in the name of religion! She’s abusing her faith, gorging herself spiritually while her God-given marriage relationship is on the verge of dying due to starvation.

This is the message I see in Lost Horizon, for the monks are satisfied with their safe haven, a place where they can wait out the coming storm. While they “rescued” (or is it “kidnaped”?) the soldiers who accidently stumbled into their sanctuary, their selfish, uncaring, zombie-like existence in the name of peace and religion prevents them from stepping out to change the world. What a wasted life when religion “saves” a person but doesn’t instill him with the urgency to help save others as well!

Although Conway’s character feels a bit flat throughout the book, in the end he evidences a very clear change, as if we’ve been driving down a level road for several miles and only recognize the slight grade when we look back and see that we’re at the bottom of a hill. While Conway started out as an active yet reluctant leader, especially over the weak Mallison, he wound up being a passive follower of the monks. That is, until weak Mallison smacked him back to reality.

This book became an instant classic for a reason. It’s entertaining yet thought-provoking and will stick in your mind for a long while after. I recommend it completely, especially as a vacation book, though you might want to avoid reading it on an airplane.

©2016 E.T.

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