Must Read, Philosophy

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

I was introduced to this book by Ramya while I was in the 12th grade. I did find a worn-out copy in my local library, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) I did not end up finishing the book that year. I remember putting the book down (don’t worry, I didn’t kill / destroy the book! Librarians, continue loving me!) after reading a few chapters. The format of the book put me off: How can philosophy be explained in the guise of stilted dialogues resembling cut-copy-pasted paragraphs from nonfiction philosophy books?

I moved on to other books, but little did I know that this book would return back to my life. (I wish my love life was as interesting as this story)

Another year or two later, I ended up finding a copy of this book at a Booksbyweight exhibition near my college. I immediately grabbed it out of the pile, and tucked it along with the numerous other books I wanted to purchase.

I promised myself I would read it.

I never did.

Until last month.

I picked it up last month, as a last resort for a sad soul, trying to look for the meaning of life and all sorrow therein. (Emo out)

I struggled with reading this book, because this was one of the books I chose to read right after a major reading + writing slump. I was proud of myself even if I read a chapter a day. Because some days, I could barely even manage to read two pages at one stretch.

After 1.5 months of struggling with this book, I have finished reading it.

I do not claim to have understood every philosophical nugget of wisdom in this book. I can assure you that it would take a lot of rereading for me to actually understand Socrates’s speeches, Neoplatonism, Spinoza’s philosophy and the wisdom of the rest of the smarty boys.

However, I can confidently say that a first reading of this book has introduced me to a world I want to explore thoroughly in the coming years. My academic mind has even considered the idea of switching streams post graduation and venturing into a postgraduate degree in philosophy (“Far-fetched,” the Nihilists would say)

Hey, but a girl can dream, right?


Getting to the review:

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder aims to introduce the reader to the basic concepts of philosophy and the fundamental questions asked by various philosophers since the dawn of ages right up to the modern age. The format of the book, as I mentioned earlier, is fiction, with non-fiction-ish dialogues. The initial chapters are a bit tedious and boring to read. The dialogues seem robotic and Wikipedia-ish. However, as the story of Sophie and a mysterious philosopher called Alberto Knox develops, you will get used to the unusual format.

Sophie Amundsen is a fourteen year old Norwegian schoolgirl who lives with her mom. Looking in her mailbox one day, she finds two pieces of paper. On it, two, simple, innocuous but tough-to-answer questions are written:

Who are you?” (anyone who thinks this question is easy to answer clearly hasn’t written a bio on a dating app)

Where does the world come from?” (surely not out of your dreams, does it?)

Sophie (and the reader) is encouraged by Alberto to ponder upon such questions and come up with answers before he tells her the name of the philosopher associated with each fundamental question. Alberto’s teaching style evolves through the course of the book from the above mentioned style of written correspondence to long seminars in abandoned churches to discussions in a cabin hidden in a forest to a conversation at a café (I loved the chapter that was set in the café!). This shift in the teaching style corresponds to the shift in philosophical thoughts over the ages.

Moreover, the story is not limited to these two characters. There’s Sophie’s mom, who is skeptical about the “character and intentions” of this “Alberto Knox”. There’s Sophie’s best friend, Joanna, who seems to humour Sophie by listening to her new-found philosophical knowledge and helping her sneak out of the house and meet Alberto for their seminars/discussions.

To spice things up, there’s an element of mystery involved. A girl called Hilde is sent postcards from her father, but the postcards are addressed to Sophie. Amusingly, Hilde and Sophie also share a birthday in common. What is the element of mystery in this? Why are these details so crucial to the development of the story? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Overall, I consider this book to be a good gift for a teenager who’s on the verge of adulthood. A certain level of emotional maturity and open-mindedness generated from making too many mistakes are a few prerequisites for reading this book. (Just kidding. That’s just the grandma in me talking)

In my experience of reading this book, I found that the chapters based on philosophers of the recent ages were easier to read as compared to those of the earlier ages. Maybe it was my reading slump or maybe it was the different writing style that took some time getting used to. Or maybe it was the fact that I already knew a bit of Romanticism, Marxism, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Freud’s concepts of id, ego and superego and the Big Bang Theory (not the show, you dolts) and relatively nothing about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Democritus, Locke, Hume and Berkeley.

I plan to change that in 2019, though. (Which is why, if you noticed, I have added a new category on this blog: Philosophy)

Some of the dialogues and scenes seemed ridiculous to me. (for example, an instance where two characters started “getting busy” right in the middle of a formal birthday party. Trust me, you have to read this part of the book to understand why it seemed ridiculous to me) But then I realized this: maybe it was a matter of perspective and the fact that this book was published more than 20 years ago in 1994 in Norway. (Thank you, my perspective-broadened-by-philosophy)

I do hope I get a chance to read this book again at an even more leisurely pace at least once every year. Maybe then, by the age of 30, I will have finally understood everything mentioned in this book!

sophie's world



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