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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

cover of 'Sophie's World'

14-year-old Sophie Amundsen is a normal school-girl who discusses normal school-girl things with her friend Joanna-- until she gets an unusual note in her mailbox, which begins her on a course of studying the history of philosophy with her equally unusual teacher, Alberto Knox. The first few lessons begin with thought-provoking questions like who are you? and where does the world come from?, or why is the Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?. These simple questions get Sophie to wondering, and then are usually followed up by a lesson-- initially in written form, later on via in-person discussions with Alberto Knox. In addition, to the philosophy course, Sophie starts finding postcards and other things that belong to a girl she's never heard of, Hilde Moller Knag-- and something about the postcards doesn't quite add up (they are sent from Lebanon but apparently took no time to get to Norway, Hilde's birthday is the same as Sophie's, Sophie is being relied upon to deliver the postcards, etc.). About half-way through the book, when Sophie and Alberto are discussing the philosophy of Berkeley (who believed that the only thing we could be certain of were our perceptions and not physical reality, and thus we exist in the mind of God), they discover that they (Sophie and Alberto) are characters in a book that Major Knag is writing for his daughter Hilde-- so they exist only in his and Hilde's imaginations.

The initial philosophy lessons are wonderfully done-- great questions to get at the heart of a particular philosopher's ideas and contributions, or wonderful object lessons and examples to help a 14-year-old (or any reader) to get the main ideas of these thinkers. And the twist halfway through the book was quite fun, and seemed to work well; however, towards the end the book seemed to lose something. The philosophy lessons didn't seem to be as creative-- mostly just Sophie and Alberto sitting and talking, with Sophie interjecting an occasional "go on" or a question (not always exactly even in character). I wondered if the relative weakness of the later lessons might be partly because it is harder to judge the value and importance of thinkers who are closer to our own day; with the philosophers of antiquity, we have a certain perspective based on which of their ideas survived and influenced others.

Once Sophie and Alberto discover they are characters in a book, the novel gets a little more playful with literary conventions-- Alberto announcing section or chapter breaks, characters from other books and stories showing up (sometimes in relevance to the philosophy and sometimes apparently just because), etc. We also get to see Hilde reading the birthday present her father has written for her, and for some reason she gets indignant about her father "playing God" with Sophie and Alberto, so she decides to play a trick on her father in the airport on his way home-- this is somewhat entertaining (he seems to briefly feel that Hilde is the omniscient narrator controlling his story for a while), but doesn't seem particularly relevant to advancing the story or the philosophy lessons. I thought the ending, in particular, was quite bizarre; I wasn't sure if there was a philosophical relevance, or if Gaarder just didn't know quite what to do with the characters and world that he had created.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book, and found the refresher course in philosophy interesting and thought-provoking. I've known about this book since I was in college, so I'm glad I finally got the chance to read it.

Title:Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy
Author:Jostein Gaarder
Date published:1994
Genre:Fiction, Philosophy
Number of pages:544


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