Review of Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
by Jostein Gaarder
Hard to know what I could add to my previous review of Sophie’s World. I suppose in the 6 years that have passed since that second reading I have grown and changed and that means my perspective on this book will have changed as well. But I stand by the earlier review, and now I’ll just elaborate.
I bought this fresh copy of Sophie’s World as a gift; actually, I bought it twice over. One will go to a coworker about to go on parental leave. She requested some book recommendations, and this one in particular seemed to get her excited. The other copy was a birthday gift for my friend Amanda, who in addition to watching Doctor Who with me every Sunday also enjoys having philosophical conversations. There is no better book than this one to help give someone a grounding in the basics of philosophy while simultaneously awakening interesting questions in the mind. I took the liberty of underlining some of my favourite passages as I read her copy, even annotating here and there—I don’t usually do that with birthday books, but this one is something special.
Last time I reviewed this I concentrated on how deeply I loved Jostein Gaarder’s meta-fictional storytelling. Still do. This time, though, I have to marvel at just how cleverly he executes it. My jaw drops at the sheer amount of history and philosophy that he crams into this text, and the way he orchestrates the meta-fictional storyline to emphasize each of the various philosophical schools of thought just as Sophie learns about them. When you first read this novel, you’re probably too focused on the sheer density of its content to really notice these touches. So it’s these subsequent readings, when the explanations have the comforting cadence of familiarity, that allow you to notice just how intricately constructed Sophie’s World is. If I hadn’t given this novel 5 stars before, I would definitely be doing so now.
The way Gaarder develops and frames Western philosophy is fascinating too. Towards the end of the book, as Alberto expounds upon Hegel, he observes:
In fact, you cannot detach any philosopher, or any thought at all, from that philosopher’s or that thought’s historical context. But—and here I come to another point—because something new is always being added, reason is “progressive.” In other words, human knowledge is constantly expanding and progressing.
I don’t know if I entirely agree with this in a practical sense. Could we not have a future where knowledge has regressed? It is popular, these days, to imagine catastrophes of such an apocalyptic nature that the remnants of humanity lose all connection to their history and culture. I suppose this is arguably the “trivial case”, though, because it’s essentially a reset. What about some kind of world-wide, oppressive, authoritarian rule—Orwell-style? One could argue that there might always be torch-bearers, secret knowledge-keepers, etc. And perhaps I am simply guilty of taking this too literally; Hegel’s point is more that as long as we have the knowledge we will collectively continue to build upon it….
See, this is the thing about this book, and about philosophy in general. It just gets you thinking. You don’t always have to agree. You don’t always have to fully understand a point. You just have to open your mind to listening to it, and then turn it over, examine it from different angles. I love the way Gaarder models that here through Sophie, the way she mixes credulity with scepticism, patience and open-mindedness with the kneejerk opinionated attitude common to most of us (and especially so among teens, natch).
I’ve never really been one for small talk. I understand its usefulness and that it is hella weird to start asking strangers intensely personal questions. Yet, there are also impersonal questions that can nevertheless be very deep. These are the conversations I like to have. I like to ask questions that make people think. I like when my friends and I are talking, and they think they have a line of thought worked out towards a strong conclusion, until I ask a question—and they pause. And reconsider. And I love when my friends do that to me.
Sometimes it’s lonely up in here. Without getting too solipsistic, we are all, all of us, somewhat alone in our brains. Philosophy is one of the few ways we can touch other human minds, because it is an exercise that requires us to be our most human selves. When I’m having a conversation of a philosophical nature with someone, I feel a little less alone. But you can’t always be with your friends. So I gave this book as a birthday gift. I give birthday books because they require a lot of thought, and I can write in them, and ultimately because they’re like giving pieces of yourself. Sophie’s World is a big piece of myself, I think. It’s a microcosm of how I want to approach the world, how I want to think, to learn, to teach.