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BOOK REVIEW - Sophie's World: Jostein Gaarder, Phoenix Books 1995

Is this a novel, or is it a textbook on philosophy? This question is in itself just one of the conundrums rose by this amazing book. Few works of fiction come with extensive index notes. This is a dual-purpose book. On one hand it is a young adult's guide to the most difficult metaphysical questions in Western Philosophy, and on the other hand it is a fantasy based on the many ideas it presents in an easy prose that makes even incomprehensible philosophers  like Hegel accessible. It begins when a fourteen-year-old Norwegian girl receives an anonymous note bearing the questions, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where did the world come from?’. Sophie's world changes as she receives a series of philosophical essays, comprising the beginnings of a strange correspondence course. She is guided step by step through pre-Socratic and Hellenistic philosophy. The fictional elements that intercut so neatly with the textbook passages of the philosophy course are equally fascinating. Sophie attempts to track down the philosopher who communicates at first only through his messenger dog Hermes. Eventually, Sophie finds him to be a man called Alberto Knox. She first sees him in a video he posts to her in which he is talking directly to Plato, live in ancient Greece. From here, the story takes a more fantastic turn. Sophie meets Knox, and also discovers that another figure called, with deliberate similarity of name, Albert Krag, and another teenage girl called Hilde, who seems to be engaged in a parallel debate, is affecting her life. Alberto Knox begins to educate Sophie in the shocking realisation that she is merely a fictional character in a book on philosophy, which Krag is writing for his daughter during his absence from her side. Sophie finds that her education is now being illustrated with the aid of visits from other fictional characters. The Little Match Girl attempting to sell Ebenezer Scrooge her wares illustrates Marxist theories of the division between bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It may seem simplistic, but it works wonderfully. There are flaws. There is no mention of Utilitarian thinkers, and Nietzsche is glossed over too quickly in Gaarder's eagerness to rush on to Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. He is at his best as a philosopher in the Hellenistic world. The book demonstrates philosophy's relevance in day-to-day activity, and for us, there is much reference to Humanism's Greek and Renaissance heritage. Finally, the book carefully but sympathetically discredits all claims of paranormalism. Sophie and Alberto make a brief but telling impact on the mind of Hilde Krag, and vanish. Hilde herself is last seen being told of the fleetingness of life in the cosmic scale of time. This is a book on all aspects of life. It is often comical, and occasionally tragic. It captures the sense that life is precious and wonderful and even spiritually awe-inspiring even without supernaturalism. For Sophie and Alberto. Trapped in the realm of the imagination as philosophical abstractions. There is recognition of what little immortally there is – and that we survive only in the impressions we leave of ourselves in the lives of others. 

© Copyright. Arthur Chappell

                                   

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