Even for an avid reader who immerses in light or serious contents alike, reading philosophy might not be the choice at the first place. May be because philosophy, still, is viewed more an academic stuff and therefore assumed to pupil’s of philosophy’s cup of tea. There is also quite a greater aversion towards philosophy, in general, owing to its dense approach and complexity. A friend of mine, a voracious reader who explores diversified subjects irrespective of their complexity, once quipped, ‘philosophical texts are bizarre, keeping my head swimming. I read everything yet can’t conceptualize most of it’. True it is. A sound knowledge in any language may warrant understanding almost everything written in that language but as of philosophy just word power can’t let the reader to swim through it.
To many of us the word ‘philosophy’ is synonymous to say, ‘Socrates’ or ‘Aristotle’. May be because, these names keep ringing in our years whenever the topic of philosophy is discussed or merely mentioned about. In my college days, the time while I dared to explore everything as a young reader, I stumbled upon a book ‘The Story of Philosophy’ by Will Durant. I grabbed the copy hoping to take up the road I had ever travelled then as a reader. The copy still waits to breathe fresh air hoping I will leaf through it. A novel on philosophy is hardly possible, so I thought. Not anymore.
Cooking a novel on the history of philosophy and that to as a page-turner is in fact a miracle in the literary sense. Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder ‘s ‘Sophie’s World’ (Originally in Norwegian in 1991 and it saw the English translation in 1994) is an unparalleled work, perhaps till date, that seamlessly achieves the unachievable. Though the tag line of the novel reads ‘A Novel on the history of philosophy’ after reading it I felt it might be more appropriate to name it as the novel on European philosophy and if so it rightly deserves it.
Before the start of the novel we read Goethe’s quote “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” Sophie’s world tells the reader the story of a fourteen year old Norwegian teen Sophie Amundsen who start receiving mysterious postcards with just two questions ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where do you come from?’ Soon she learns the sender as an enigmatic philosopher Alberto Knox who through a series of letter offers a course on philosophy to Sophie. From here the reader is in fact given a crash course on European philosophy spanning thousands of years, starting from the Golden Era of philosophy in the land of Greek. As a naïve reader about philosophy it was quite interesting to know that there was a note worthy lineage of philosophical idea before Socratic era.
From letters to video tutorials to personal meetings Sophie embarks- and so is the reader- a fantastic journey into the historical timeline of philosophy following Alberto Knox. His charisma not just knocks down Sophie but the reader as well. The literary success of Gaarder is evident very early while he manages to transform every reader to slip into Sophie’s shoes, eagerly and obediently waiting for meeting Alberto as if he is more a real personality than a character.
Sophie becomes a devoted pupil of Alberto in secrecy without the knowledge of her mother. Besides Sophie begins to receive mysterious birthday cards to someone named Hilde Moller Knag, whom Sophie soon learns shares her birthday, which is only few weeks away. Later the teacher and the student duo learn that they are being watched over by Major Albert Knag, Hilde’s father.
Soon after few chapters along with the philosophical discourses runs parallel the Sophie-Hilde story, with the labyrinth of mystery getting more and more convoluted as the plot develops. We begin to taste a heavy dose of magical realism in the Hilde’s story. The stories get entangled so seriously at one point the reader is utterly surprised when the actual story is revealed. No sooner the reader knows the plot twist this otherwise serious work turns into a hot heeled nail-biting thriller. I refrain myself from revealing it but- something like a clue- wouldn’t mind to quote from the book that reads ‘…how could one find a book about oneself in a book about oneself?’. This might as well be misleading but would certainly spice up your curiosity.
Jostein Gaarder has brilliantly rolled up nearly 3000 years of history of philosophy into a novel that offers a great insight of the core idea of the work yet entertains without compromising on the reading pleasure of it. Like I pointed earlier this book is actually a novel on the European philosophy to be precise and the Eastern philosophy is skipped in total, though the title reads to be on the history of philosophy on the whole. We see Buddha getting referred a few times and Indian philosophy even fewer times – three as far as I remember. For he who had managed to sum up the entire history of Western philosophy it wouldn’t be a big deal to account the eastern counterpart as well. Perhaps he might have thought it to be trivial to quote them or he might’ve had a superior feeling over the prior.
The author takes pro-European side that runs throughout the text and his pro-Christian leaning glaringly reflects in all places where he presents the philosophical discussions on religion that also runs throughout the work. The quest of philosophy could never be complete without contemplating God and having witnessed the author’s Christian inclination in the initial stage of the work itself, as a reader I found a dedicated chapter on Darwin very interesting and was eagerly waiting to read author’s take on it. But Gaarder has refrained himself from rendering personal comments there.
The novel was adapted on screen in the same name in 1998 and it remains the costliest Norwegian cinema to date. Though it hadn’t many any ripples in the film circle I’m still looking forward to see how this hard-to-film novel was captured in celluloid.
There are courses in the ‘Dummies series’ for almost every title. If ever there is a Philosophy for Dummies title this is possibly the best of the lot. Those who look for a book on dense subject marrying an unputdownable racy mystery Sophie’s World is for you. Leaving her world is not as easier as getting into it.