Some books are meant to be read in a passing fancy, while others are meant to be devoured. Still others are supposed to be reread. The 1991 novel penned by Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World was beyond my wildest imagination, it’s been a while that I’ve come across a book this good. When Sophie Amundsen starts receiving cryptic messages in her postbox, soon enough she embarks on a correspondence with Alberto Knox, who gives her a rather comprehensive and concise history of philosophy.
As a child, I would often wonder about the mysterious realm of philosophy. Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, etc., were easy enough to comprehend, but what exactly did philosophy entail? And to read this book, this history of sorts, broken down so a fifteen year old can easily grasp was great for me too. It was like going back to school, but of a different kind.
Sophie’s World equates philosophy with living. There is much to learn from Sophie, Alberto, Hilde and Major Knag. We are only concerned with the pursuit of our pleasures, little do we think of life, death and humanity in general. The questions posed in this book pushes us to question our existence, our actions, our thoughts, everything. It tries to shake us from our daily reverie. It directs us down the path of critical thinking and not just accepting notions for the mere heck of it.
Among the many debatable topics the book discusses, free will features a lot. Do we really have free will? Are we mere puppets in someone else’s hands or do we pull the strings of someone else in this stage of life? A beggar is slave to his stomach, a rich man to his wealth. Even though this is a story of a book within a book, this philosophy lesson is for all readers, for us. It’s like holding up two mirrors parallel to each other and infinity reflections pop up.
Apart from getting an extremely short course on philosophy, however, we the reader must decide what to glean from this book for ourselves, and apply it to daily life. Among the many motifs, themes and topics, the United Nations has been featured umpteen times in the storyline, probably as a symbol of effort made to ensure world peace. As the book was published in 1991, this period marked the end of the cold war and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the efforts of the UN to unite the countries. It lays emphasis on how coordinated efforts from various governments is key, among many factors, in maintaining a safe world.
This breathtaking book is a like a jolt of current. I’ve been stumped by the topic and the narrative since page one. I can safely say that this is the first book I shall be rereading almost immediately after completing it the first time. This time, I want to sit with a little notebook and spend time on each philosopher mentioned since the pre-Socratic era to Sartre and the new age. Another important factor that jumped out at me was how perspective plays an important role. Can one ever really be right or wrong? Or the old adage of putting ourselves in the other’s shoes holds true? Do we tend to make snap judgements, but then again, a true philosopher never really jumps to conclusions.
One thing is certain, if you read this book the right way, it’s bound to leave an impact. And in keeping with the lessons learnt through Sophie and Hilde, I want to spend time in educating myself and in charting a very different course in life. Not just the mere passage from one phase to the other, but to try and really make a difference, and ponder on things beyond the superficial.