Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder for #NordicFINDS

For my meager contribution to Annabel’s five-week Nordic FINDS challenge, I got out my copy of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder that came from the free mall bookshop in 2020.

 

Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy (1994)

[Translated from the Norwegian by Paulette Møller]

Sophie Amundsen, 14 going on 15, starts receiving mysterious letters asking her life’s big questions: Who are you? Where does the world come from? Soon her anonymous correspondent starts sending whole sheaves of paper elaborating on episodes from the unfolding history of philosophy, from creation myths through the Greek philosophers to Marxism and Darwinism via the Renaissance and Enlightenment. She’s so engrossed in her impromptu philosophy course that she starts to neglect her schoolwork and worry her mother. Sophie identifies the letter-writer as one Alberto Knox, who perhaps lives in a lake cabin nearby, and starts to interact with him by writing back. (I loved that their letters are delivered by a golden Labrador named Hermes.) Meanwhile, she’s perplexed by all the postcards she receives addressed to “Hilde,” also 15. Is she reading Hilde’s story, or is Hilde reading hers?

I’ll be honest … I made it just 96 pages (out of 394) before I started skimming, flipping past big chunks to get to the story. As to what I did experience, my feelings are mixed:

  • On the one hand, this is certainly a more fun way to encounter philosophy than the textbook I had in college, while still offering accurate and thorough information.
  • On the other hand, is the novel’s young adult audience really going to stick around for all the talky/preachy bits surrounding the slightly magical, mind-bending plot?

I think this became a word-of-mouth bestseller a couple of decades ago because of its novelty value. It’s a book that asks and assumes a lot of its readers: that we be curious and diligent, that we engage in the universal search of meaning. As Alberto writes in his first proper letter, “We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.” I feel I missed my moment to read it, though I can admire its aim.

(See Annabel’s review here.)

 

My current Scandinavian read is Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen, a Finnish author, about the treatment of Sámi people during World War II (coming out from Pushkin Press tomorrow).

22 responses

  1. Oh well! You can’t win them all. I agree that when this book was published, it was novel, and that (and my lack of knowledge of philosophy then) surely got me through it then. It wasn’t a good choice to re-read in the end for me, nor to read for the first time for you. A book of its time, that needs the right time to read methinks. Thank you!

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    1. A shame I missed the right moment to read it. A friend was staying with me over New Year’s and remarked on seeing it on my shelf — I’ll have to ask if she has fond memories of reading it and would like my copy.

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  2. I remember abandoning the Gaardner some years ago, and am not now encouraged to go back to it. Land of Snow & Ashes sounds a better bet for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A challenging read if not in the right mindset. I’m not far into Land of Snow and Ashes but hope it will hit the spot.

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  3. […] Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder – The Content Reader, AnnaBookBel, Bookish Beck […]

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  4. I’m not surprised that readers who are coming to this book for the first time as adults aren’t really getting on with it – I’d hesitate to re-read it myself, largely because I’ve studied a lot of the philosophers covered in much greater depth now. However, I absolutely adored it as a teen, and to be fair, so did a lot of my classmates – it was one of those books that got passed around. I imagine its enduring popularity is due to its young adult readership. It’s a shame for Gaarder that this is the only one of his books that’s really well-known – I’d recommend The Ringmaster’s Daughter to adult readers over Sophie’s World.

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    1. How neat that it was a meme among you and your friends! I’m not sure I’d even heard of the book until I was into my thirties. And I didn’t realize Gaarder had written more. I thought of him as a one-hit wonder. My library has his Christmas book; I might try that come December.

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  5. We read this book many years ago. We think it was an original idea and a good introduction to philosophy. We are not that interested in a plot. As we are partly Norwegian and were teaching Nordic literature at McGill university we read in its original language. ‘Sophie’s World’ was a must-read in Continental Europe. For us ‘Sophie’s World’ is much better than ‘The Ringmaster’s Daughter’ as it is to the point explaining philosophy. ‘The Ringmaster’s Daughter’ is too much plot design for our taste.
    Thanks & cheers
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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    1. Certainly an original idea, and a good way of learning the basics of philosophy if one hasn’t already studied it. I’m glad to get your perspective as Norwegians/Europeans, thank you!

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  6. I’m not desperate to reread this novel, and having now got through four of Gaarder’s works over the years find his magic realist approach combined with similar memes and themes being repeated rather wearing: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/jostein-gaarder/

    But I do have a copy of his Maya waiting on my shelves which I may pick up some time or maybe leave till next year’s NordicFINDS…

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    1. I really had no idea Gaarder had written so much. It’s good to know that the rest of his oeuvre is much the same, which means I probably will not try the others any time soon. (I might have been drawn to The World According to Anna, but I find books with a heavy environmentalist message a turnoff — they’re preaching to the choir with me anyway.)

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  7. I used to have a copy of this but never got around to reading it and, because it’s such a chunky little thing, it was passed along after a couple of household moves, with some other chunky books that I never “found time” for either. It always interested me that it’s so often assigned reading here: a lovely way to learn, compared to some drier philosophy options, the kind you suffered through it seems. Heheh

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    1. I do wonder how I would have felt about it as a teen. It’s possible it would really have captured my imagination. Actually, I audited the philosophy course as a senior in college and the fact that I wasn’t doing any assessments meant I really enjoyed what I learned.

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  8. I actually read this in high school – who knows how I found it, guess it was just one of those buzzy books back then! I don’t remember anything about it but I’m pretty sure I rated it three stars too.

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    1. It’s so funny how this book was a big part of the teenage years for some but not for others. I guess it just depended on your school or friend group.

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  9. […] unexpected opportunity to contribute another post for Nordic FINDS this week (after my skim of Sophie’s World): yesterday we went into London – for just the second time since the pandemic started – and I […]

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  10. Ooo, I’ll be anxious to know what you think of the Rautiainen book. Might be one for my comps TBR, since my novel-in-progress is partly set in Finland just before WWII.

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    1. I’ll be reviewing it … eventually (too many books on the go at the moment, as usual!).

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  11. The Finnish one does sound interesting, as my Finnish clients often have texts about the Sami now. As for Sophie’s World, I never fancied it, I have also consistently mixed it up with Sophie’s Choice in my mind!

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    1. I read one about the Sami last year, though set in an earlier time period (The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave).

      Ha ha, that’s funny, quite a different book! Though probably equally gruelling in its own way.

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  12. Some of my students when I was teaching loved this book and so I read it. I thought it was a great introduction to philosophy but agree with the Norwegian comment. ‘Not strong on plot!’

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  13. https://unbound.com/books/embers/. This was a really interesting debut Scandinavian eco thriller from independent publishers.

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