Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World (FSG, 1994)

Is there nothing that interests us all?… What is the most important thing in life? If we ask someone living on the edge of starvation, the answer is food. If we ask someone dying of cold, the answer is warmth. If we put the same question to someone who feels lonely and isolated, the answer will probably be the company of other people.
But when those basic needs have been satisfied – will there still be something that everybody needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And everyone needs love and care. But there is something else – apart from that – which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here.

Do you remember the film The Gods Must Be Crazy? It’s a movie so poorly made, with such an absurd plot, that the only thing it had going for it was its own bumbling charm – and that was plenty to make it a beloved favorite for anyone who’s ever seen it.

Sophie’s World is a bit like that. It’s a surface gloss over the history of philosophy wrapped in a peculiar mystery with a writing style that varies from fourth-grader to ridiculously pompous – not to mention a plot that should come with a warning label, “Kids, Don’t Do This At Home” – yet it’s one of those books that simply propels you to read the next page because you must find out. First, you must find out what’s happening, and then, once you know what’s happening, you must find out how it resolves, and when you’ve read the last word and closed the cover, you’re left projecting into the future and maybe recalling Sophie and Alberto the next time you open any book.

Oh, did I mention it’s a YA novel? A Norwegian YA novel? A Norwegian YA “novel about the history of philosophy” as the subtitle assures us?

I chose to read it now for intertwined reasons (much like Sophie’s world is intertwined in… well, you’ll have to read the book). First, I’ve been bumping into Norway a lot lately. In July I read The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas for a class. In August, One Story‘s offering was a story (by an American with strong cultural ties to Norway) set in Norway. I also ran into Norway via some Wittgenstein readings; he there hid from philosophy for a while. Earlier this month, I read Bill Roorbach’s Life Among Giants which featured a Norwegian ballerina and taught me the first Norwegian word I’ve ever retained, firfisle (lizard – you’ve got to read the book to know why that word). When I ran into Scandinavian logic characters in a math class, I knew something Norwegian was going on (this is just getting weird: the day after I posted this, the Short Story Thursday offering arrived: a story by Norwegian author and 1903 Nobel laureate Bjornstjerne Bjornson), so I went with it, and dug out the only Norwegian reading I had heretofore done, this crazy, delightful, engrossing story of Sophie’s world.

A month before her fifteenth birthday, Sophie finds a couple of postcards in her mailbox: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” That’s enough to get her wondering, not just how the postcards got there and who sent them and why, but about how she would define herself and where the world came from. She soon finds out the card was from a man named Alberto Knox when he sends the opening chapter of a History of Philosophy course that starts with Thales of Miletus wondering the same things about existence. Over the course of the month, Alberto’s History of Philosophy chapters move her forward through Classical, Christian, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern philosophical movements from Socrates to Augustine to Copernicus to Descartes etc., etc., etc., with dozens of stops along the way.

But while this is going on, something else is happening, too. Sophie also finds a postcard meant for one Hilde Knag, with whom she apparently shares a birthday. With no idea who Hilde is, Sophie wonders how she’s supposed to find her to give her the card. This begins the mystery that propels the plot – at least, initially. It’s fascinating to me that this mystery – who is Hilde, who is her father, what do they have to do with Sophie, where does Alberto fit in? – is resolved about halfway through the book, but another narrative drive takes over, which for Sophie took a specific form (I won’t reveal in the interests of avoiding spoilers) but for me, was: How on earth is the writer going to get out of this?

A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.

In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

That’s the magic of the book. Just as Sophie’s curiosity was aroused by that initial postcard, the reader’s curiosity is piqued, and, in an unusual move, a “second wind” of sorts comprises the second half of the book. I wonder: would a book like this find a publisher in the US today? Even though I’ve been reading and re-reading it for the past 20 years, a novel for teenagers about the history of philosophy, sans zombies, vampires, or a love interest, is not something that screams “best-seller” or “movie rights.” Yet, it was an international best-seller and there was a (Norwegian) movie, a computer game, even a (German) musical, not to mention multipart TV adaptations in various countries. Sometimes, things just catch on.

I read, obviously, a translation; I’m not sure how good that translation is, but I have to admit that some of the narration is painfully childish in style – more for an eight-year-old than a teenager (“Sophie looked at her watch. It was a quarter to three. Her mother would not be home from work for over three hours. / Sophie crawled out into the garden again and ran to the mailbox. Perhaps there was another letter”), though Alberto’s philosophical teachings are more age-appropriate. Another issue for me: when I was a kid, I would feel stupid after watching a mystery or spy show, or even Star Trek, because everyone in those shows seemed to know, if not the answers, exactly the right questions to ask. Sophie is like that; when she’s not doing smart-ass teenager snark during Alberto’s lectures, she asks the perfect question to lead into the next point. I suppose that’s a silly complaint, lack of character depth and inauthentic dialogue, considering the book. It’s like the terrible overdubbing or the horrible camera work or amateur acting in TGMBC (or for that matter, the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” which was likewise technically abysmal yet immediately became a permanent part of the soul of everyone who saw it, and has been beloved for three generations now): it’s part of the experience, and the experience is terrific, in spite of (maybe because of) the flaws.

Here’s the strange thing about re-reading this book: The ending is always brand-new to me. The first few times, I didn’t remember at all what “happened” beyond the philosophy course. Then I remembered some of it, but not the resolution. This time, I knew the midpoint resolution, and knew the direction of the struggle from middle to end, but I still did not remember exactly how things finished up. This fits perfectly with the plot, by the way, a plot that raises some issues about what happens when you close the cover of a book and put it back on the shelf. Is it possible the book itself changed as it sat there between All Our Secrets Are The Same and Winds of War (an odd place for it, to be sure)? Or is there something about the story itself that’s self-erasing from my memory, like the e-books I download from the library for two weeks? It’s a speculation worthy of Sophie and Alberto.

Sophie found philosophy doubly exciting because she was able to follow all the ideas by using her own common sense.… She decided that philosophy was not something you can learn; but perhaps you can learn to think philosophically.

Gaarder wrote this book fairly early in his career. He’s written books for both adults and children, as well as nonfiction, and a 2006 op-ed about the Middle East that got him into a great deal of trouble (he’s since apologized and reframed his comments). By the way, another touchstone of my re-reads: one of the characters in Sophie’s World is a UN observer in Lebanon, and every time I re-read the book, there’s some kind of mess going on in the Middle East. I suppose there’s been a more or less continuous mess going on in the Middle East for a long time.

In a 1995 interview, Gaarder said he wrote Sophie’s World because, while travelling in Athens, he was told there was no book about philosophy for kids, since “they’re too young to understand it.” He wanted to make it understandable. The book was a NYT best-seller and has been translated into 53 languages. I’d say he succeeded.

4 responses to “Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World (FSG, 1994)

  1. Me too. I just want to get hold of the British version because I’ve just listened to an interview with Jostein Gaardner on the BBC podcast of The World Book Club [sorry I can’t leave a link] where he said that when the book was translated for the American market, several facts were changed e.g. Sophie’s best friend’s name was changed to Joanna from his original, Uren.

    • Hi Madeline – I found the interview, thanks for the heads-up, it’s great. I’m so glad this book is still so widely beloved – love what he said about passing an introductory philosophy course on this material alone!

      Strange, the things the publishers changed. That would’ve been in 1991, maybe today in a post-internet (and post-Katniss) world, American publishers would trust their readers more. I hope so.

  2. Pingback: Ancient Philosophy MOOCs | A Just Recompense

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