Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder

>> Friday, November 17, 2006

I discovered Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder quite by chance, browsing in my local bookstore about 10 years ago. I read the subtitle: "A Novel About The History of Philosophy", and I was intrigued. How could it be a novel and be about the history of philosophy at the same time? I bought it just to see, and I was blown away.

Since then, I've often reread bits and pieces, but I think this is only the second time I've read it in its entirety.

One day Sophie comes home from school to find two questions in her mail: who are you? and where does the world come from?

Before she knows it, Sophie is enrolled in a correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre and beyond, with a mysterious philosopher. But Sophie is receiving a separate batch of equally unusual letters. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up in Sophie's world?

To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning--but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined.
Sophie's World is an great introductory text on philosophy, but what makes it so excellent is the way Gaarder integrated this textbook into a very entertaining fantasy novel. An A.

Sophie's a perfectly normal 14-year-old Norwegian girl who arrives home from school one day and finds a strange letter addressed to her in her mailbox. The letter contains just two mysterious questions: Who are you? and Where does the world come from? Pretty big questions, huh?

The next thing Sophie knows, she's started receiving letters from a stranger who tells that he doesn't want her to be one of those persons who are blind to the wonder of life and who only care about mundane stuff, so he's going to give her a course on philosophy and its history.

And he does, teaching her about philosophy from the very early attempts by Man and Woman to explain the world through myths to the present-day philosophical currents, touching on all the main thinkers of the past 2000 or so years.

A lot of the book is basically a textbook, but one written in such a way that it's wonderfully entertaining and easy to understand. It's an overview, of course, so each philosopher is not covered very deeply, but the book gives you a very good idea of what the gist of his ideas was.

Still, even with all this, this is a book which isn't to be read all in one go. I read only one or two chapters per day, and this was probably the best way to go, as it gave me time to digest them well.

I mentioned a fantasy novel above. At first, it seems that the device of having Sophie's sections around the textbook parts is just a very simplistic attempt at making a textbook not read like a textbook. Sophie would arrive home from school, read the letter from her philosophy teacher, explaining a certain philosopher or school of thought, and then think about what she'd learned.

But then Sophie's world starts becoming more and more mysterious and complicated, with the life of someone named Hilde Moller Knag somehow starting to pervade Sophie's whole existence, and that's when things get interesting.

I have to admit that Sophie and her teacher, Alberto, are not the best drawn characters I've ever read. Sophie's reactions often don't ring completely true, and Alberto remains too much of a cypher throughout the entire book. But you know what? I didn't really care about that all that much, because I was so blown away by the ingeniousness of the way Gaarder manages to make the events in Sophie's world reflect what she's learning in her philosophy course. I thought that was nothing short of brilliant, and it's the reason this book gets such a high grade.


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