Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

There are many, many books out there that are on my periphery ‘to read one day’ yet that often need a nudge to actually get them into my hands. Sophie’s World, has been one such book – as is Sophie’s Choice which I often confuse one for the other. Not now though, as after the lovely Rita chose Sophie’s World for book club and so, after initially having been very excited and run to the bookshop to buy it, I have read it. All I can say initially was that it was definitely a reading experience unlike any other I have had.

Phoenix Books, 1991 (1996 edition), paperback, 448 pages, bought by myself for book group

Fourteen year old Sophie Amundsen never gets any post. However one day on the way back from school she finds something for her when she collects the latest items from the mail box. She has two notes, one which asks her ‘Who are you?’ and another which asks ‘Where does the world come from?’ This creates several puzzles for Sophie, firstly who on earth is suddenly sending her post and secondly what on earth are the answers to all of these questions which in turn create even more questions. Soon enough more parcels arrive and it seems someone wants to teach Sophie all about philosophy and its history. Yet why suddenly is she also receiving postcards addresses to Hilde care of her? Who is this Hilde girl and how are all these mysteries linked?

There are a lot of questions there before we even really come to any of the actually philosophy that is intertwined within the book. I have been known, on a good day, to be sat looking at the sky and suddenly realising/remembering that I am on a big spinning piece of rock that is spinning through space and time and really we have no idea why it does this or what the point of it all is. I will think about it, possibly contemplating what it might be like to visit the moon, see the earth from space or if there may be aliens out there, and then my head hurts or feels it may implode and so I have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit and pick up a book. This book was making my head hurt a little bit by page eight…

Where does the world come from?
She hadn’t the faintest idea. Sophie knew that the world was only a small planet in space. But where did space come from?
It was possible that space had always existed, in which case she would not need to figure out where it came from. But could something have always existed? Something deep down inside her protested the idea. Surely everything that exists must have a beginning? So space must sometime have been created out of something else.
But if space had come from something else, then that something else must also have come from something. Sophie felt she was only deferring the problem. At some point, something must have come from nothing. But was that possible? Wasn’t that just as impossible as the idea that the world has always existed?

I have no issue with a book making me think hard, or about things I have never thought about before. Indeed this is what I often really like about books. Nor do I have issues with books informing me of things that I might not have known before. From the premise of the book I thought I was going to find a really clever twisting and turning mystery, a sort of tale of adventure that would also teach/inform me of philosophy, its ideas and the philosophers behind it at the same time. Instead, overall, I got a book which was a rather clumsily and clunkily (is that a word?) written text book of the history of philosophy which was padded out by an initially rather repetitive and thinly constructed story. A very thinly veiled text book too.

You see for the first hundred or so pages all we get is Sophie walking to and from the letterbox to her house, or two and from the letterbox to some bushes where she has her hide out. In between this riveting (yes, that’s sarcasm) storyline we get chunks of text book like quotes (I actually thought these were either from a very dry text book or that Gaarder had written a text book which was turned away from publishers so added a sprinkling of story and kerching) about philosophers since the beginning of time. Here, had it not been a book club choice, I would have easily given up. Bad prose, dull academic non-fiction, no thank you very much.

Interestingly the book did then take on a very strange and unexpected twist which did in fact save it for me, albeit briefly. I can’t say what the twist is as there may be many of you mad people out there who want to give Sophie’s World a try. What I can say is that it made me think about fiction, writing, books and characters plus the boundaries between the real and the imaginary that was for a while rather fascinating and diverting. Then the book goes all out bonkers, seriously the comparison to Alice in Wonderland is slightly understandable as Gaarder seems to suddenly go off on some ‘trip’ into the utterly bizarre. Ruining the good, if short lived, high point of the book. Well for me at least, though most of the people at book group (who actually managed to finish it, several didn’t) agreed.

Odd then that by the end of it, though I had pretty much loathed or been bored to tears by 80% of it, I was quite pleased I had conquered Sophie’s World, even if only because it was over and I could say I had indeed managed to survive it. It did also do what I guess all philosophical books aim for, it made me ask lots of questions. Sadly these were; how on earth was this a classic, how can people say it is a novel, how would I ever get that time spent reading it back again, how on earth was it a book for teenagers and young adults and could I ever believe anyone who said they ‘loved it when I was 12/13’, how did they even understand it or not get bored out their minds? Food for thought though, ha – and at least I can laugh about it now.

Note – I am joking about people who loved it when they were younger. You are just cleverer than me and I am bitter! Ha!


Filed under Book Group, Jostein Gaarder, Orion Publishing, Review

8 responses to “Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

  1. I did read this book when I was about 15 and LOVED it. I haven’t read it since, perhaps I should. I have, however, read all of his other novels as they’ve been released and really enjoyed them, although they are very much novels and not philosophical texts as this one is. I’d be interested to see what you think if you ever read any of his other stuff.

  2. An amusing and telling review of an atrocious book, Simon(at least on the novelistic level; the philosophy was useful cos I needed a summary of pre-20th century analytic philosophy); and , as u say, the mooted division between the “reality” of life v. the “reality” of the text was intriguing; and led to lots of existential questions generally. but as a “novel” with, as someone said, twee narrative devices,an insult to children/teenagers, as well as adults. I really like your point re the philosophy sections seeming to have lifted out of some dry text book (c. 1900 lol); and I think his stopping at Sartre, with a cursory nod to Simone de Beauvoir, was both risisble and insulting to the masses of philosophy and critical thinking that has occurred since, and which actually INCLUDES non-hegemonic groups!Good to hear your thoughts, Steve

  3. Someone presented me with a copy of this as a 12 year old and I have to admit it went way over my head and I found it confusing and boring. I remember the cover of the edition I had being a Barbie-pink colour with stars and possibly a picture of a young girl writing in a diary, leading me to believe it was going to be some Babysitter’s Club style fluff!

  4. LauraC

    I’ve started this book several times and enjoyed what I have read, but then I get into the 19th century philosophers, get a headache, and give it up. I very much want to get my head around them, but find it difficult. Some teachers use this book along with instruction on the philosophers and I think that’s what I need to do, even if it’s on my own. Someday I’ll try again-it’s on my shelf!

  5. I loved that book, and then ended up reading 2 other books by this author. The Elegance of the Hedgehog has some similarities

  6. Annabel (gaskella)

    I skimmed this book when it came out, but remember I was bored by it too, hence the skimming – haven’t read anything else by him either. Yes you can’t get back that time spent reading it, but you can turn your experience into something positive and informing upon future reading choices! 😉

  7. Thank you, Simon, for confirming that I made the right decision years ago when I put this one down shortly after I began it!

  8. I remember being alternately bored and wowed by this book when I was 12 or so, but then later picking it up and realising it was exactly what you say: a dry philosophy text wrapped in a rubbish story. But it did get me sort of interested in philosophy, so I guess I owe it that.

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