Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder: Impressions

I had no inkling of the bestselling status of this book when my husband gifted it to me. I was even a tad disappointed on reading the title. 'Sophie's World' sounded decidedly like a teen novel, and I wondered at his choice of present. When I asked him what the book was about, he just said it was a very famous novel. I shrugged and left it lying for a while, unaware of the treasures that lay within. I picked it up after some 'to-be read' books were done with, and only when I read the preface did I realise that this book was really a short history of philosophy. Inwardly, I smiled a huge smile; my husband wasn't really as ignorant of my taste in books as he made out to be.

This was my Jostein Gaarder first, but it was easy to see within a few pages why it had become an international bestseller. Not just an exceptionally lucid work on the history of philosophy, 'Sophie's World' is also a gripping fairy tale, with a plot that might remind you of Inception. The author begins with describing a day in the life of Sophie Amundsen, a 14-year-old Norwegian, and a typical teenager. But the course of her normal life changes forever, when one day she receives three mysterious envelopes in her mailbox, posing some primary philosophical questions. From then on, a secretive teacher starts her out on a philosophy course, mailing her the course notes.

Before Sophie knows what is happening, lessons on ancient Greek philosophers have started arriving at her door. Her days begin to be occupied with the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others, even as her bewildered mother wonders about Sophie's eccentric behaviour. The mystery deepens with Sohpie receiving mysterious birthday postcards addressed to one Hilde Moller Knag, another Norwegian girl who is exactly her age and even shares her birthday!

Sophie's philosophy teacher, Alberto Knox, soon meets her in person and they continue with their philosophy lessons on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque period, even as the strange postcards - all wishing Hilde a happy 15th birthday - continue to make appearances at the weirdest places. Sophie begins to wonder about Hilde - is she for real or a dream?

And just as the reader begins to assimilate all these strange ideas, Mr. Gaarder, like a true philosopher, flips the book upside down. Suddenly, the reader finds that no longer is Sophie reading about Hilde, but Hilde is reading about Sophie! The philosophy lessons on Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Hume stand on firm ground, but the plot sways dizzily, and the reader needs to align and realign himself constantly to the changing realities. Sophie and Alberto are now characters of a book written for Hilde by her father, Albert Knag. We can no longer be sure who is part of whose imagination. Like any good philosophy lesson is wont to do, it poses existential questions to the characters as it does to the reader. Who we are? Where do we come from? Where are we headed? Are our realities, dreams or our dreams, realities? Are we masters of our destiny or mere puppets in the hands of a creator?

Philosophy lessons from the eras of Enlightenment, Renaissance, Romanticism and right through the present day continue in the book with their characteristic clarity, along with the highly fantastic central plot, interjected now and then with characters from fairy tales and mythology like Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin, Little Red Riding Hood and even Adam and Eve! The line between fact and fiction often blend, illustrating wonderfully to the reader the uncertainty of the world we live in. What holds true now may have once been false, and many beliefs of yore have now been proven untrue.

The greatest merit of the book is illustration - something that is sorely lacking in textbooks of philosophy. Through Sophie and Alberto's dialogues, the author beautifully demonstrates the philosophic points he preaches. The language is refreshingly clear, unlike those dense tomes an academic student of philosophy has to deal with. Jostein Gaarder delivers precisely what he promises - a book on the history of philosophy for young people. Having chosen a teen (rather two) as his protagonist(s), he has been able to speak simply of matters exalted. Combining it with a rather ingenious plot, he has won the complete attention and understanding of the reader. Yet another wonderful device used by the author is that of repetition. He never loses the opportunity to give the reader a quick recap of the previous philosophies, knowing well that there is way too much knowledge he has pressed between the pages, and that it is difficult to remember.

The plot culminates beautifully, if a little improbably. But one can expect no less from a book as ambitious as this. I'd even go so far as to say that this book should be made an introductory textbook for the student of philosophy. There is so much more to say, but I'd rather you discover them yourself - the answers, and more importantly, the questions.        


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