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Staring into the magician's eyes
by Asa Butcher
2006-11-18 10:26:06
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Sophie's World
Written by Jostein Gaarder
H. Aschehoug & Co, 1991
"I finally finished Sophie's Choice, err I mean, Sophie's World!" I exclaimed to Thanos, after four weeks of steady progress through its 480-pages. Thanos smiled and asked, "So, did it make you want to explore philosophy further?" I mulled over his question for a few seconds, washing it over my palette like a fine wine, and replied, "No." From his startled expression, I guessed that he hadn't expected that answer.

Sofies verden was written by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder fifteen years ago as a book that makes philosophy accessible to a wide audience, but was primarily aimed at teenagers. Today, it has been translated into fifty-three languages, over thirty million copies have been printed, including three million copies sold in Germany alone, and the Finns call it Sofian maailma: romaani filosofian historiasta.

Naturally, I stuck to the English translation by Paulette Møller, who did a fantastic job capturing Gaarder's turn of phrase, the philosophical analyses and the bizarre events that happen to Sophie and, later, Hilde. Once again, I have to comment upon the incredible skill of a translator because the overseas' success of a book falls heavily upon their shoulders and they can never receive enough recognition for their job.

The reason for my negative answer to Thanos' question does not mean that I disliked the book. In fact, it gave such a comprehensive overview of philosophy that I was left battered emotionally and exhausted mentally. Gaarder starts from Mythology, moves onto the Greek philosophers of Democritus, Socrates and Plato, and then hits the Renaissance, Baroque, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Hume.

The pace refuses to relent, as the reader is introduced to Berkeley, the Enlightenment, Kant, Romanticism, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Darwin and Freud, which are all names and periods that are all familiar to us all. However, chapter after chapter you are forced to analyse your own surroundings and ask those famous questions, such as 'Who are we?' and 'Why are we here?', plus tackle the statements, 'To be, or not to be' and 'I think, therefore I am.'

Gaarder's book covers so much of western philosophy that I wasn't sure my brain could cope with many more revelations. I think I am one of the ones who prefer to nestle in the fur of the white rabbit, as opposed to philosophers who "are always trying to climb up the fine hairs of the fur in order to stare right into the magician's eyes." The white rabbit motif is a recurrent theme throughout Sophie's Choice, damn, Sophie's World, so you had better like those furry beasts.

One aspect of the book which I noticed was the way that Gaarder approaches Religion. He doesn't dismiss the idea of a God, nor does he proclaim a higher deity in charge of our fate. Well, he sort of does to Sophie and Hilde, but to reveal anything more would spoil the story. Anyway, the way he deals with religion can be summarised in one of his story's paragraphs:

A Russian astronaut and a Russian brain surgeon were once discussing religion. The brain surgeon was a Christian but the astronaut was not. The astronaut said, "I've been out in space many times but I've never seen God or angels." And the brain surgeon said, "And I've operated on many clever brains but I've never seen a single thought."

The plot of Sophie's World follows a 15-year-old called Sophie Amundsen (Sophie, from the Greek 'sophia', meaning 'wisdom'). When she receives two anonymous messages in her mailbox (Who are you? Where does the world come from?), a postcard addressed to 'Hilde Møller Knag, c/o Sophie Amundsen', and a handwritten course in philosophy, her life changes forever. The course is taught by a fifty-year-old philosopher called Alberto Knox, but it could also be Hilde's father Major Albert Knag…nothing is certain as the story progresses.

Sophie's World will open your mind to philosophy and teach the basics that everybody should know. It may trigger an urge to explore philosophy further or it may frighten you to consider the scope of your own life, but, whatever you take from it, the book will get you to start questioning everything!


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Chris2006-11-17 20:05:16
I believe I have to read this book. Do you think I should take it to the motorcycle retreat on Zen Maintenance?

Asa2006-11-17 20:15:08
I have no idea what the 'motorcycle retreat on Zen Maintenance' is, but the book is well worth a read.

Sand2006-11-17 22:42:10
It may be a reference to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".

Asa2006-11-17 23:58:04
Pray tell, what is that one about?

Sand2006-11-18 04:55:37
It is about general attitudes to living and cannot be easily summarized. It's a book several decades old and part of a cult phenomenon but worth reading.

Chris2006-11-18 17:14:52
Pirsig's book also runs the reader through a rapid and encompassing overview of the world's philosophy and religion. It sounded like the two works might belong to the same genere. Please forgive my humouristic expression.

Asa2006-11-18 19:49:24
No apologies, please. We are here to learn!

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