‘Sophie’s World: A novel about the history of philosophy’ | SierraSun.com

‘Sophie’s World: A novel about the history of philosophy’

Barbara Perlman-Whyman
Special to the Sun
Stock photo/Sierra Sun

Jostein Gaarder is one of those lesser-known authors. Most of us reading this would not recognize his name nor could we name any of his books. But we should! He has won the Norwegian Literary Critics’ Award (1990) and the Ministry of Culture and Scientific Affairs Literary Award. This former philosophy teacher is one of the most popular of contemporary Scandinavian authors, and his novel “Sophie’s World,” published in 1991 and translated into English in 1995, has become and remains an international bestseller. With well over 20 million copies in print, and translated from Norwegian into 45 languages, an entire industry has sprung up in the form of a movie, a musical, a board game, a television eight-part series, and even a CD-ROM based on the book.

What is interesting and unusual is that Gaarder’s books, frequently written from the viewpoint of an adolescent, combine a sizable content of philosophical pedagogy along with the story. At times, it can be seen as a philosophy book instead of a fictional novel. He is so successful at this combination that “Sophie’s World” has become a popular textbook for undergraduate philosophy courses.

But don’t turn away thinking this book will be dry and boring. Remember Gaarder targets his books to a young adult audience and his plot, storyline and constructs are clever, surprising and engaging. In fact, at times the book is actually “mind-boggling.”

Sophie Amundsen is a typical 14-year-old who, like many, knows little, if anything, about philosophy. She is approaching her 15th birthday, a significant transition in the life of a Norwegian girl, when she moves from the wonderment of childhood into adulthood. One day, out of the blue, she receives a mysterious package from an anonymous sender that holds two questions: “Who are you?’ and “Where does the world come from?” She also finds a post card addressed to ‘Hilde Møller Knag, c/o Sophie Amundsen’.

Soon after that she receives a packet of papers, part of a correspondence course in philosophy. Sophie is determined to find out who sent all these to her and what they mean. Guided by an older philosopher-teacher, Alberto Knox and his dog, Hermes, who surreptitiously connects with Sophie, she begins to solve a philosophical puzzle.

Sophie begins to find postcards and messages for Hilde (who she discovers shares the same birthday as her own) written by Hilde’s father, a major serving with the UN in Lebanon. Alberto draws in Sophie, as well as the reader, through a myriad of questions, to an introduction of the history of Western philosophy. From Democritus, Socrates and Plato, Descartes and Spinoza, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, she tries to understand what is happening to her as well developing an understanding of the world in which she lives. The puzzle of Hilde’s identity and the overlapping of the two girls’ lives, which Gaarder has very carefully woven into the plot, stimulate curiosity further, eventually bringing it full circle, culminating in a birthday tea party climax.

This book, although written for young adults, is a wonderful book for adults who have little or no basic understanding of the history of Western philosophy or who have forgotten the focus and impact of various philosophers and scientists throughout time. “Sophie’s World” is also available on CD which can be taken out from the Incline Village library.

Squaw Valley Institute presents award-winning American novelist Oakley Hall on Thursday, Nov. 8.-

Hall has authored more than 20 works of fiction and books on the writing process, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and is the winner of the PEN Center USA/West Award for lifetime literary achievement. Locals may also know him as the founder and General Director Emeritus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.-

Hear Oakley Hall’s personal story of dealing with Hollywoodas his novel, “The Downhill Racers,” was made into a major motion picture. Then, sit back and enjoy his readings from his recently published book, “Love and War in California.” –

Come at 6:30 and enjoy the no-host bar until 7 p.m. when the program begins at the PlumpJack Conference Center in Squaw Valley.

Tickets ($10 donation to Squaw Valley Institute) are available at the door or on line: http://www.squawvalleyinstitute.org. Children and students with ID are free.

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