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Reading time: Sophie’s World

I finally finished reading “Sophie’s World“. You’ve probably heard of it: I don’t think more than two days in a row ever went by without someone commenting on me reading it and saying they loved it. Those who have read, oh, two sentences on this blog will be unsurprised to hear I have stuff to say about it.

Background! I started reading Sophie’s World in, um, Year 11, when I was sixteen. I was studying “Introduction to Postmodernism” in high school, and I took up Sophie’s World as part of an overall “holy cow I love philosophy” vibe. Didn’t finish it, despite meaning to. Went on to uni and majored in Philosophy and felt like a bit of a fraud for most of it because I wasn’t entirely sure I remembered enough — I understood stuff when it was explained to me but I really struggled to retain it. Fast forward however many years it’s been since I finished my undergrad and I start thinking about this and that: I remembered the addictive feeling of learning new ideas and new perspectives; that feeling of having your mind blown, so you want to grab people by the shoulders and make them see the world the way you can suddenly see it. I discovered the ABC Radio National podcasts, especially the Philosopher’s Zone and started getting back into philosophy. Just listening to discussions about philosophy and perspectives and ideas really fed something in my head, so I decided to start reading some basic entry-level stuff. At this critical juncture, my Mumini had a clean out of her bookshelves and a free copy of Sophie’s World fell into my lap. So, that’s where we meet our lovely heroine (me): her appetite ready for an introductory book about Western philosophy, touching on some of the concepts and thinkers she had once before, in another life, in her undergraduate studies.

At first, I found Sophie’s World frustrating. I felt like it was a potted history: somewhere in my head, I had wanted a book that put forward its own ideas rather than outlining the major ones that contributed to Western thought. I found the whole setup a little contrived and had difficulty suspending my disbelief. If you haven’t read the book: Sophie is a fourteen-year-old girl who comes home to discover a letter in her letterbox, addressed to her, which sets her on the start of a course of history of philosophy with a wandering philosopher, Alberto, who conveniently has the kind of time and energy to dedicate to educating a girl he has never met. I reminded myself that the whole point of the book is to educate the reader: however contrived the relationship between the teacher and pupil in the book is, it’s certainly no more so than, say, Plato’s dialogues. Once you rearrange your expectations, it’s a pretty good book. Starting with some myths and moving through Ancient Greece, then through the Enlightenment, Age of Reason, etc. all the way to the present, each step of the philosophical history involves talking about a major thinker or two and outlining a few of their prominent and most influential ideas. Then they’re linked to the next thinker or movement (chronologically speaking) and the influence of their major ideas on the next generation of thinkers. They move at a fair clip, too, but Gaarder is very concise and covers a lot of territory in short space. I liked it a lot.

But there’s a novel happening here, too: I found that a bit challenging from time to time, because I was concentrating so much on treating the book as an Introduction to Philosophy text — a guide or summary of Western philosophical history. Then the characters would start acting like novel characters instead of handy educational tools and I’d get frustrated with them. Some of their decisions and actions were a bit odd, requiring an ongoing disbelief suspension that I kept forgetting to apply. I think I adjusted my head to view the book as a text and not a novel, so having characters suddenly fight with their friends or need some lunch or any other human activity felt sudden and surprising.

It gets a bit meta-discourse halfway through, when some mysterious stuff starts to happen that shakes up Sophie’s notions of existence and Sophie (and her helpful philosophy teacher) have to figure that out as well as complete their course in Western philosophy. That’s where things got a bit wobbly for me: like I said, I had sort of stopped treating them as characters and viewed them more as useful mouthpieces for a discussion of philosophy — their motivations and decisions surprised me and then their actions caught me off-guard as a result. It left me feeling like I was reading two books, one on philosophy and one much shorter one about a character called Sophie and Alberto and Everything That Happens With That.

Bottom line: I got a lot out of the history of philosophy stuff. I felt like it gave me a good grounding in some major points in Western thought. Arriving at the book with an existing wish to read some of the major texts in Western philosophy, but not really sure where to start, I feel like it gave me a sense of direction, so now I have a clearer idea about whose work I’d like to read next. But as a work of fiction, I’m not sure what I’ve taken from it. If I reread it, it will be to refresh my memory of the philosophy stuff, not to relive the fictional narrative.

Interesting bit of synchronicity! As well as the podcasts on philosophy that I’ve been downloading from ABC Radio National, I’ve been downloading the Book Show podcasts — and just last week I downloaded one with the author of Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder. It’s an extract from the talk he gave at this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and focuses mostly on his latest book, The Castle in the Pyrenees, but he discusses Sophie’s World as well. Totally worth listening to.

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