Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Book No. 21: Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

Sophie's World

This book was recommended - and, in fact, practically forced upon me - by a friend who found the first few chapters somewhat dull and wanted to know whether it's worth reading all the way through. I say yes, but with caveats.

I also grew tired of the weak writing and flat characters in the first part of the book. Well, ok, let me back up. To my friend, who only read a couple of chapters, this is a book about a rather boring teenage girl, the eponymous Sophie, who suddenly starts to receive philosophy lessons in the mail from a mysterious, yet benign stranger. The philosophy lessons, I should mention, continue throughout the book, and provide clever high-level summaries of most of the major schools of Western thought throughout history. It's fair to say that I like philosophy. I majored in it in college, and was lucky enough to take several classes that focused on the history rather than practice, and, well, most of this summary was not new to me. However, if I were completely unfamiliar with it (like, say, most of the people I know), I'd probably find quite a bit of enlightenment in these summaries. To my mind, they're the most appealing part of the book.

But back to the plot, and I'm afraid that I have to mention some key spoiler plot points.

So, the first half of the book is all about this girl and her philosophy lessons and her attempts to keep them secret from her mother, who will almost certainly (and rightfully from her point of view) see something inappropriate in a 15 year old girl spending so much time with a strange older man. The other major element of the first half are the postcards Sophie suddenly starts receiving from a major in Norway's UN battalion (did I mention that Sophie's Norwegian? No? Well, she is) which are addressed to his daughter Hilde, who Sophie doesn't know, and which contain messages that she doesn't understand.

The novel turned out slightly differently than I expected. As I mentioned, the first half of the book is rather flat, as the characters don't seem to have much of an inner life (or much of an interesting inner life, at least), and the writing is amateurish. About halfway through the book, it turns out (and you may figure this out before I did) that Sophie and her philosophy teacher are characters in a book written by the major to his daughter Hilde, and the postcards are little asides directly from him to her. Sophie and her philosophy teacher figure this out right when she learns about Berkeley, which is appropriate.

Perhaps because the book is a translation from the Norwegian and ostensibly written for teenagers, I'd been lulled into thinking that the bad writing was unintentional. Once we step out of Sophie's story for Hilde's, however, the writing improves, and the relief between the "real" world of Hilde and her father the major and the "story" world of Sophie and her philosophy teacher is fairly well defined, even without the font changes. Gaarder can't help but out-meta himself with the suggestion that Hilde and the major are also characters in a book, which, of course, they are, but his suggestion is just an aside, so, as far as we're concerned, Hilde and the major are at the top level of reality in the book. So the primary story turns into a story-within-a-story, although once Sophie and her philosophy teacher figure out that they only exist in the major's imagination, they long to escape (and the Hilde part of the story is mostly about Hilde reading the book and waiting for her father to return from Lebanon).

Gaarder piles irony upon irony at this point, although the philosophy lessons continue, going from Kant up to Sartre. It's not quite clever enough to truly mess with the reader's mind (such as in, say, the multiple levels of reality in Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler), but it's probably about right for precocious young adult readers. If they can get through the somewhat treacly first part, that is.

So the plot is so-so, but the philosophy lessons are an interesting introduction. Although I didn't love this book (and, as I said, found major portions of it annoying), I still want to recommend it for the effort and the high mental nutrition factor.

Two quick quibbles with the philosophy lessons: 1) Other than a brief aside about John Rawls, American philosophy is mostly ignored, which seems especially a mistake, given the major's repeated pro-UN stance; and 2) No Heidegger? I mean, sure, he was a Nazi, but it seems wrong that Sartre was the only 20th century philosopher discussed at length (not that I don't love old Sartre like crazy) and 20th century Continental thought belonged to Heidegger (ok, maybe I'll give you Wittgenstein).


Tiffany 12:01 PM, July 21, 2005  

I'm glad you read this book. My father gave it to me years ago. I no nothing about philosophy and I did find the summaries very enlightening but I put the book down about half way through and have not yet picked it up again. The lessons were interesting but the rest of the story dragged on. I stopped reading your summary at the word spoiler, maybe I'll pick the book up again thanks to your post.

Anonymous 8:38 PM, September 08, 2005  

forrest said:
I just had to read this book for AP english 11/12 in highschool. I agree with you. gaardar didnt go all the way on discussing modern philosophy, and the first part of the book basically sucks. But i did feel that once i got to the end I had accomplished a feat of reading.

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