Book Review : Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

24 June, Kathmandu : Sophie’s World is the 1991 best-selling book about a young 14-year-old girl, and her wild, incredible, and sometimes bizarre introduction into the world of philosophy. It was originally written in Norwegian by Jostein Gaarder and has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, having been translated into over 59 languages.

The main characters in the story are Sophie Amundsen – a bright, young schoolgirl whose father travels a lot, and Albert Knox – a strange, middle-aged man who mysteriously enters Sophie’s life to introduce her to philosophy and how to see her teen life through the eyes of philosophical thinkers, both old and new. Sophie’s World has been adapted into both a video game and a BBC TV series starring Jessica Marshall-Gardiner as Sophie, and Jim Carter as Albert Knox.

Sophie Amundsen Is a happy-go-lucky 14 year old girl who lives with her mother, while her father travels the seas. She has a regular life, a house full of pets, and her best friend is Joanna, with whom she spends most of her time. Sophie is just a few months shy of her 15th birthday, and she and Joanna are devoting a fair of their time to planning her thematic birthday party. Upon arriving home from school, Sophie discovers that there are two anonymous letters in the mailbox addressed to her. Intrigued, she opens the envelopes, and finds inside each one a single sheet of paper containing a typed question – ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where does the world come from?’ This simple act starts Sophie on a helter-skelter ride through the history of philosophy, from the mythologies surrounding creation until the present day thinkers.

At first, she only receives written texts, but quickly meets their author and soon to be personal philosophy teacher – Albert Knox. The appearance of Albert brings with it a host of strange happenings, postcards being sent to Sophie’s home with the name of another young teenager from a UN soldier (who seems to have deity-like powers), a mirror that seems to have somewhat magical properties, the appearance Red Riding Hood, to name but a few. Albert seems unwilling to explain these comings and goings and so it is left to Sophie to try get to the end of her philosophy course and at the same time figure out just what is going on, will she manage to get to the bottom of things? And more importantly, will the preparations for her birthday party be ready in time?

I really enjoyed reading Sophie’s World; it’s an interesting story about a young girl’s introduction to philosophy and critical thinking. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a few downsides to it. Firstly, some of the chapters where Albert explains about the different philosophers to Sophie tend to drag on quite a bit; it can get a little tedious sometimes. The author does try to simplify the methods of thinking of the early philosophers, but it is still possible to find yourself getting more than a little lost and having to repeat the chapter again to get back on track. In the end, I had to read the book twice to understand some of the concepts in the story. But this is not a complaint, both of the times that I read Sophie’s World I managed to understand more and more.

Also the twist at the end of the book is very ingenious, still I only really understood it fully after reading the book the second time. In my opinion, the book does a fairly good job of introducing young people to philosophy; it does seem to get a little bogged down in the middle but the second half of the book is definitely a lot better. Sophie’s World introduces a lot of interesting ideas to chew the cud over. In the early chapters of the book, the author tries to show that as a child we are amazed by the wonder of things, but that as we grow older we lose this and become more interested in the everyday mundane things instead. I think that people will get a lot from this book; it just takes a little time to read through everything and understand some of the early philosophers and their eccentric ideas. So, make a space for Sophie’s World on the shelf reserved for books that you definitely need to read in the very near future.

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