First Lines: Sophie’s World

There’s at least two ways to look at Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy: as a novel, and as a history of philosophy.

As a history of philosophy, a Philosophy for Dummies, if you will, I think works. It gives a compact overview of how western philosophy evolved in the last three thousand years. (Particularly pleasing was that half of the names mentioned in “Bücher” from Tanz der Vampire were mentioned.)

As a novel, however, I wasn’t particularly impressed, as it has a few issues.

First: the premise of the book is that our titular heroine gets a course in philosophy. It starts with finding large envelopes in the mail, and then progresses to face to face meetings with the teacher, a middle-aged man named Alberto Knox. One would suspect that this sort of thing regularly happened in Norway in the early 1990s, as the girl’s mother is not troubled by any of this. Like, at all. And Sophie? She never really wonders why she gets these letters, she just goes along with it, and gets some new profound insights in the working of the world at the end of every chapter.

Anyway, as long as she gets the letters, the rest of the story doesn’t really get in the way. You can easily skim over it, as it never really adds anything. But when she starts meeting with Alberto, the lessons are turned into a dialogue. Or at least, Alberto talks a lot, and Sophie throws in a couple of interjections to break up what would otherwise be a monologue. Unfortunately, it never really gets to be a dialogue.

And then, a little past the halfway point, when you start to realize that both Sophie and Alberto are extremely flat, awkward and mostly unlikable characters, that all the story between the philosophy mostly gets in the way of the good bits of the book, there’s a plot twist.

*** SPOILERS! ***

It turns out that the story of Sophie learning about philosophy is part of a book called Sophie’s World, is actually a book about philosophy, written by a father for his nearly fifteen-year old daughter. Oh. My. God. I’m all, like,

MTV Pimp My Ride’s Xzibit heard you read a book about philosophy, so he put a book about philosophy in your book about philosophy so you can read about philosophy while you read about philosophy.

Of course, it’s a very corny meta-joke, but it is pulled off wonderfully, and it actually saved most of the book for me. The thing is, in a book that tries to teach about philosophy and asks whether or not you can trust your senses or logic, it makes sense to pull the rug out from under everything. In fact, even you, dear reader, cannot be sure that you’re not just a figment of my imagination. And if you are, what does that actually mean, in the grander scheme of things?

So, wrapping up: as a philosophy primer, Sophie’s World does what it should. As a novel, it has a couple of issues that might want you to throw the towel. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t, as the meta-fiction was quite enjoyable.

Book read
Jostein Gaarder — Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy (Sofies verden: roman om filosofiens historie, translated by Paulette Møller)
First line
Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school.