Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
Pages: 513
Date: January 23, 2016
Grade: 5
Details: YA / Book Club / Re-read
Own / Paperback

The blurb:

One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home to find two notes in her mail asking, "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" which lead her to ponder the great questions of Western philosophy.

Before she knows it, she is enrolled in a correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre and beyond, with a mysterious philosopher. But Sophie is receiving a separate batch of equally unusual letters. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up in Sophie's world? 

To unravel this riddle, Sophie must make use of the philosophy she is learning. But the truth is far more complicated than she could have imagined... 

My thoughts:

A Novel About the History of Philosophy

This was a re-read for me. In fact, I think this may well be the third or fourth time I’ve read this book since I got it twenty-odd years ago. I don’t re-read books very often and that has little to do with how much I enjoyed a book. For me there’s nothing like experiencing a story for the first time, and that is something you can only do once. Re-reading Sophie’s choice comes close to reading it for the first time all over again, though. There are so many layers to this story it is all but impossible to grasp it all in one reading experience.

On the surface this is the story about Sophie who is invited to do a philosophy course by a mysterious and man called Alberto Knox. Yes, the invitation and the way she receives her subsequent lessons is a bit strange, but not something that would raise eyebrows except….

Except that at the same time Sophie starts receiving post for a girl named Hilde; a girl who is apparently the exact same age as Sophie and who also has a father who’s away from home for huge chunks of time.

The reader gets a crash course in philosophy together with Sophie. The book, or Alberto Knox, depending on your perspective, takes Sophie and the reader from The Garden of Eden, via the Greek philosophers to Freud and the modern times. Both Sophie and the reader are required to think about existential questions and wade their way through often conflicting answers.

While Sophie progresses through history it becomes clear that the surface story isn’t all there is in this universe. There’s more to Hilde and her father than first meets the eye and it’s a mystery that centres around the question what is real; can we rely on what our senses tell us or is there more to our world? Between the various philosophical theories and the mystery surrounding Hilde, this story had me hooked from the first to the last page. And even now I finished reading it, questions and ideas are still running through my mind—a clear sign that the story fascinated me.

And it’s a clever book. I could share quite a few examples to prove this but will limit myself to this; a sophist is a wise and informed person. By the time the story ends both Sophie and the reader are wiser and better informed than they were when they started their journey.

If I’m perfectly honest I have to admit this is not the most smoothly written book I’ve ever read. In fact there were one or two things that started to throw me by the time I got to the end of the story. For one thing the book, out of necessity, contains a lot of information dumping and while the study in philosophy fascinated me, those informative sections were on occasion to long. At least a few of them could (and maybe should) have been broken up with sections of story-line I feel. I also got a bit fed up with the conversation between Sophie and Alberto. Given the teacher-pupil relationship they have, it makes sense for there to be a lot of questions from Sophie, but that got repetitive after a while—simply because there are only so many ways in which you can ask someone to explain something. J

But, even taking into consideration these reservations, I still have to say this was a brilliant read. This book required that I paid attention to every single word in it. I couldn’t skim and I couldn’t allow myself to get distracted and I love it when a story does that.

Long review short: This is a fascinating and wonderful novel if you enjoy magical realism and are interested in philosophy. If you’ve never thought about things like the meaning of life and why the world is the way it is, there’s a good chance this book will bore you to tears. Personally I was hooked…again.

I could have added an endless amount of quotes to this review, which is hardly surprising given that it deals with philosophy. I have decided to limit myself to just one, because it delighted me when I read it.

“A composition—and every work of art is one—is created in a wondrous interplay between imagination and reason, or between mind and reflection. For there will always be an element of chance in the creative process. You have to turn the sheep loose before you can start to herd them.”

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