Book review: Sophie’s World
I like philosophy and, when I read Sophie’s World a few years back, I liked it… to a certain extent. It’s not the classic ephemeral best seller who nobody remembers after a decade of its publication but it probably wouldn’t be on most people’s list of “The 101 books you must read before you die” kind of thing either.
Sophie’s World is, as the full title suggests, a novel about the history of philosophy. The idea is to present that history as a narrative, featuring a 14-year-old girl named Sophie and Alberto Knox, a philosophy teacher.
Said Goethe that “He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand-to-mouth.”, in other words, if you want to understand the world and the events that occur in your time, you need to understand History.
I think the purpose of the book is a) to act as a form of introduction to philosophy for young people and b) to make sense of our place in the world through philosophy. You will find out below if I believe that it achieves such goals.
Plot of Sophie’s World
Fourteen-year-old Sophie finds two notes in her mailbox with one question on each: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from”? Sophie is intrigued and excited as she begins getting more and more letters from this stranger, which form the text of a correspondence course in philosophy by a mysterious philosopher called Albert Knox. By trying to answer some of the questions those letters ask, Sophie learns and grows and begins to think about her world differently.
Sophie’s World Review
Following on what I have written about the purpose of the book, certainly there is not a worthwhile introductory philosophy text for young readers (Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy might be a bit much).
On the other hand, while Sophie’s World seems to have been written for young people, I think that anybody, regardless of age, who isn’t familiar with the history of philosophy will benefit from an introductory text such as this one, if they’re interested in understanding the world we live in.
Sophie’s World is written in a very light way, with simple language and ideas, “conceived for ease of use”, so to speak. Certainly these features and the fact that you can approach this book as a light-hearted textbook, make it ideal for young-adults. However this doesn’t mean that more mature adults will not enjoy it; there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re after.
What makes it a little more complex is that there are two aspects to this book: the purely entertaining part (the novel, the fiction); and the educational one (the history book, the non-fiction). Hence, it’s both a novel and a “text book” on history of philosophy.
Sophie’s World: The Novel
Sophie’s World is not a good novel, from the literary perspective. It’s not a good book. If you’ve read it you surely think the same. Take out all the philosophy stuff and you have a fiction book that fails to hook because it doesn’t really present a conflict, nothing happens really until you’re well into the novel.
It’s true that at first you feel intrigued at the bizarre fact that Sophie’s getting this out of the blue philosophy course from a mysterious stranger. But what seems even more surprising is that she just rolls with it as if it was commonplace. Things in the novel really start happening in the second half of the book, so I’d understand that some people really couldn’t be bothered to get there.
Sophie’s World: The History of Philosophy
As an introduction to philosophy, the book has much more interest. fares much better. The author is a great teacher, or so it seems when we calibrate the character of Alberto Knox.
This part of the book, the educational-non-fiction-history one, hits all the high points of philosophy —primarily western philosophy—, starting with the Greeks and moving forward all the way to 20th century existentialism. We cannot expect in-depth coverage of any particular subject or philosopher. However, there’s enough information so as to equip the readers with enough material to set off on their own and explore further if they wish.
I hope my review of the plot of the novel part of Sophie’s World hasn’t put you off, because the history of philosophy as told by Jostein Gaardner is fascinating and worth navigating past the accessories of Sophie’s story.
In my article / review of the film Ágora I praise the film for what I think is its real theme:
To me Ágora is about the importance of open-mindedness, asking questions rather than thinking one has all the answers, the pursuit of knowledge.
I’d recommend you read Sophie’s World, even if you think you know all you need to know about the world we live in. And especially if you don’t.
Have YOU read Sophie’s World?
In the introduction of this post I said that probably this book wouldn’t be on most people’s list of “The 101 books you must read before you die”. Is it in your top 101? What did you think of Sophie’s World? Did you agree with this review? Awaiting comments!