Sophie's World

Posted on May 14, 2012 by Jack Kelly
Tags: readings

There are some books where you get a sense that the author had an enormous amount of fun writing them. Douglas Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid is one. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is another. Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World is a third and as it’s the most recent book I’ve read, it’s the subject of this post.

The book is basically a lightning tour of Western philosophy packaged into a fairly thin story. The narrative centres around a 14-year-old girl called Sophie. In the weeks leading up to her 15th birthday, she starts receiving letters from a mysterious philosophy teacher: some are notes with a few thought-provoking questions, some are parcels that containing a few pages on a thinker or school of thought and some are proper letters directly addressed to Sophie.

The story has an interesting twist or two that prevent it from just being a series of lecture notes strung together. Sophie doesn’t talk at all like a child, which is jarring at first but quickly becomes insignificant. The main attraction of the book is the lectures delivered by the philosopher, first on paper and later in person. Sophie’s role is to receive the letters and ask questions to keep the lectures moving.

The lectures cover a range of thinkers from the pre-Socratics through to Sarte, and helped clarify my thinking in a few areas. I was a little disappointed that Nietzsche had about one sentence allocated to him, but that’s only because he’s the philosopher whose works I have read the most.

I think this is one of those books that I’ll need to come back to and reread in a year in order to get the most out of it. The book was loaned to me by a friend onshore, and I read it on voyage. I was forced to read small chunks (because of the sea routine) at a fast pace (in order to return it when we came alongside), and that’s probably the least effective way to absorb a book.

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