Sophie's World (by Jostein Gaarder)

Jostein Gaarder is a Norwegian writer; his background is in teaching, languages and theology but he has evidently studied the history of philosophy too. I would probably never have started to read his best-known book (translated into sixty different languages with worldwide sales in the millions) had it not been for a very strong recommendation from one of my sons.

As it was, ‘Sophie’s World’ sat on my bookshelves untouched for some years. I decided to read it in April last year, so it’s taken me nine months to complete it. It’s not that I’m a slow reader; but I found it quite heavy-going, despite being originally published as a teenage book.

For this book is a thinly disguised manual on the history of philosophy. I knew that much before I started. It’s written in a style that reminded me, somewhat, of the far more recently written ‘A new kind of Christian’ (and sequels) by Brian McLaren, which outlined the history of modernism and introduced post-modernism within a Christian context, from the point of view of fictional characters and an ongoing story.

Sophie’s World doesn’t even have such an interesting story surrounding the factual conversations. At least, it doesn’t seem so interesting at first. The story involves Sophie, who is an ordinary schoolgirl, and almost fifteen. She’s an only child whose father is in the army. She starts getting mysterious notes asking her difficult questions: ‘Who are you?’; ‘Where does the world come from?’ - and more. She also receives long letters which start to examine questions of this kind from the perspective of the best known philosophers through the ages starting with the Ancient Greeks.

It’s heavy-going even in the first few chapters, with names and styles of thinking being introduced in rapid succession. I knew about many of them, and it was interesting to see how they fit together, and the progression of thought as the centuries passed. But it didn’t make an easy or relaxing read. To add to the confusion, there are extra mysterious notes and postcards addressed to someone called Hilde, who has the same birthday as Sophie - but Sophie has no idea who she is.

Sophie eventually meets Alberto, the philosopher who has been writing the letters, and they embark on a series of conversations, progressing further through the philosophers of history. However, the dialogue did not ring true, most of the time. I knew it was a device to pass on information, but it became tedious, at times, reading a paragraph of information (spoken by Alberto) followed by a brief ‘I see’ or ‘That makes sense’ (or similar) from Sophie.

At over 400 pages this is not a short book, and by the time I’d reached about quarter of the way through I found myself skimming the information - which was the majority - and reading properly only when there was actual discussion between Sophie and Alberto, or when there was yet another mysterious reference to Hilde and her father.

It took me over eight months, off and on, to get to half way through the book, but by that stage it was becoming both intriguing and bewildering - and, at times, somewhat surreal.

Then, suddenly, Hilde is introduced and the entire thing so far makes sense - more-or-less, anyway. A clever idea, done extremely well, the ramifications of which were even more thought-provoking than some of the initial questions.

So I finished the second half of the book in just a couple of weeks, now understanding the principle better, and also quite interested in some of the philosophical developments that were discussed. I liked the way that much of the conversation focused on God and different attitudes towards Christianity, without ever telling anybody what to believe.

Towards the end there’s more story - although it becomes more and more surreal, even silly at times - and less philosophy; I thought it ended in a satisfactory way, certainly in keeping with the rest of the book.

I don’t suppose I’ll want to re-read this, but I might dip into it in future to refer to some of the history of philosophical thought. I’m glad I read it, and would recommend it to anyone wanting an overview of philosophy through the ages, so long as the pseudo conversations and sometimes bizarre storyline doesn’t put you off.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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