Reading Challenges

June 12, 2011

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

This is another book that falls into the category of I've-been-meaning-to-read-it-for-years, so I'm delighted to have rediscovered it and relay the news that it was certainly worthwhile reading. Often advertised as juvenile literature, Gaarder asserts that he wrote Sophie's World as a philosophy companion for middle school/high school-aged students whom, the author laments, are not required to study philosophy at public school in his native Norway. Well, sadly, most young Anglophone students aren't either, so it turns out, Sophie's World is an international bestseller, perhaps filling in some of the blanks (gaping holes?) that our respective educational systems have left us with.  Madeleine L'Engle certainly thought so: she once said of Sophie's World "How I wish I'd had it during my college freshman survey of philosophy!".
 Side note: prior to attending university, I did have a survey of Western philosophy my senior year of high school, but the teacher taught it involuntarily with all the finesse of a cardboard box, so the novel is also wonderful for those of you who drifted off to the droning sound of a teacher's inanimate voice reading directly from a text.

Gaarder succeeds here where many other teachers have failed by introducing readers to the history and major movements of philosophy while incorporating this learning into an entertaining tale of mystery.  Sophie's World is a multilayered story bursting with twists and entertaining parallels to the non-fictional account of the story of philosophy, subtly interwoven into this friendly and unassuming novel. The story opens when young Sophie (since Sophie is synoymous with knowledge, it's no surprise what the book will be about), a fourteen year old girl, receives a mysterious note in her mailbox with the questions "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?". Perplexed by the curious arrival of the unmarked message, Sophie nevertheless reflects on the questions. As time goes by, she continues to receive more questions and philosophical readings, and begins to learn more about the strange philosopher who is sending her the course. Through these teachings, she learns about the major philosophical movements throughout history from the pre-Socratic Greeks to Jean-Paul Sartre. 

Not only does Sophie's World spin a fascinating tale, the author also does an excellent job of putting essential philosophical questions into a contemporary context through another character in the book who works for the UN. "The Major" is stationed in Lebanon and concerns himself with questions linked to diplomacy, peace and how philosophy can be applied to present-day ethics. 

This internationally popular book has also been made into a film of the same name, though it seems rather hard to find subtitled in English. Below is a clip from the scene in which Sophie sees her philosophy teacher for the first time through a recording he sends her that was filmed in Athens. In the video, he teaches her about Socrates and illustrates the infamous trial at which he was unjustly condemned.


  1. Interesting book. You did a great review

  2. I had this book and meant to read it, and now I can't find the damned thing. I've heard so many wonderful things about it...

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Hope you find it, Jennifer! It's a keeper.


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