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SOPHIE'S WORLD, philosophy for you and me

Updated on June 12, 2015

Interested in questions of life and existence, but thought the study of philosophy too esoteric for the average reader? Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder will change your mind, as it takes you on an exhilarating quest with fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen as she discovers the world of philosophy.

This novel-cum-textbook succeeds in threading together the history of western philosophy in a simple but not simple-minded manner. Certainly a valuable introduction to philosophy for high-schoolers and adults alike. And a book worth reading just for the fact that it gets you thinking, and sparks your sense of wonder.

The book in brief

Written by Jostein Gaarder. Originally published in Norwegian (1991), and subsequently translated into English (1995) and other languages.

What the book is about: Concise introduction to the history of western philosophical thought, interwoven within a mystery novel for young adults.

Why you should read it: Makes the study of philosophy an adventure and a challenge, yet within the grasp of the average reader.

Suitable for: High school and college students, and adults with an interest in philosophy.

More About Sophie's World

Although Sophie's World is at heart a guide to philosophy, it wouldn't have caught the public imagination and sold millions of copies if Gaarder had not interwoven the information into a charming mystery-suspense novel.

The story begins with fourteen-year-old Sophie coming home from school to find two notes in her mailbox asking her "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from"? Fundamental questions about life which intrigue us, but ones with not-so-simple answers; you'll find that this device is used very effectively throughout the book. Sophie's interest in philosophy is awakened, and she explores philosophy with a rather mysterious mentor, Alberto Knox.

Alberto introduces her to the major philosophers and their ideas, going chronologically, starting from the early Greek philosophers right up to Sartre. The explanations of how philosophy developed and the thoughts of different philosophers are very well done, with concrete examples to help the reader. And I like it that connections are drawn between the philosophical ideas of thinkers from different eras. Just a note here: because the book is written in such a way that later sections build upon earlier sections, you'll get much more out of the book if you read it as a story which gradually unfolds.

Without giving too much of the plot away (which will spoil the suspense for those who haven't read it), another interesting aspect of the book is that its narrative structure is itself a philosophical puzzle which doesn't get solved until almost the very end. And cleverly, the puzzle illustrates some of the philosophical questions and lessons that were brought out by Alberto Knox.

About the author

Jostein Gaarder (b. 1952 Oslo, Norway) attended the Oslo Katerdralskole and the University of Oslo, where he studied Scandinavian languages and theology. He later taught high-school philosophy for several years.

In addition to Sophie's World, Gaarder is the author of several non-fiction texts, as well as short stories and other novels.

(information extracted from Jostein Gaarder's bio here).


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