Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

December 12, 2009 § 8 Comments


She decided that philosophy was not something you can learn; but perhaps you can learn to think philosophically.

I borrowed this book from the uni library. I now want to own it. I’m hunting down the hardcover copy of this book for my collection.

But let’s not talk about me and ‘I’ for the moment. (All 3 sentences in the above paragraph started with ‘I’!) Let’s talk about Sophie, and the world of philosophy that she introduced me to.

Sophie is your typical 14 year old girl. She returns from school one day, only to find a weird question waiting in a white envelope for her.

Who are you?

Now, Sophie’s the thinking type of person. She doesn’t just toss this anonymous question into the wastepaper basket and call it a day. She sits and ponders, wondering who exactly Sophie Amundsen is. Before long, as she is still thinking about this question, another anonymous question makes its way to Sophie.

Where does the world come from?

Must everything come from something? Or can something come from nothing? Sophie doesn’t know. And now, to add to her already weird day, Sophie receives a birthday card for someone called Hilde. It does not belong to Sophie, to be sure, but the address is correct, and moreover, the card says:

c/o Sophie Amundsen

How is it possible that a card has been sent to Sophie for a girl she doesn’t know? Nothing makes sense to Sophie, and it is through this confusion that she starts her lessons in philosophy.


One has to read the book to know how truly ingenious and brilliant it is. I don’t want to use those big ‘review’ words, but it seems highly impossible to describe it, other than saying it is pure genius.

It is a ‘novel about the History of Philosophy’, it says inside of the book cover. And indeed it is. The stories of thinkers and philosophers from even before the time of Socrates, right up to the modern thinkers of our own century, are told in such simple detail. Is it even possible, to tell something simply, and yet be so detailed about it so much so that you feel you understand it all? I think Gaarder managed to pull this off very well indeed.

Let’s not forget, though, that it is still a novel. And being a novel, there are characters, a plot or storyline, and an ending. To put it simply, I loved it all. I loved Sophie and her ‘teacher’ very dearly. I loved how Hilde was introduced into the plot, and how the story shifted, just like that, and yet the transition was so smooth, it was as if it was only natural. I loved how everything was tied in together in the end.

The book was a mix of serious thought, comic relief, and a healthy dose of absurdity. Pure genius.


I’m submitting this for the Women Unbound Challenge as well, because I feel that this book touched on a very important aspect of women in the history of philosophy. From the book, we are told that:

Aristotle was more inclined to believe that women were incomplete in some way. A woman was an “unfinished man”.

The good philosophy teacher then goes on to pronounce:

It is of course both astonishing and highly regrettable that an otherwise so intelligent man could be so wrong about the relationship of the sexes. But it demonstrates two things: first, that Aristotle could not have had much practical experience regarding the lives of women and children, and second, it shows how wrong things can go when men are allowed to reign supreme in the fields of philosophy and science.

This is only at page 91 of a nearly 400 page book. Needless to say, of course, Aristotle is located at the beginning end of a rather long journey through history.

Both Sophie and Hilde appear to be characters who are sensitive to women’s issues, and are disturbed by the amount of inequality there is in what we call ‘a man’s world’. When Hilde finds out about Hildegard of Bingen, and how Sophia (In Greek, the female side of God is called Sophia, which also means wisdom) appeared in her dream, she searches for more information about them in her encyclopaedia, only to be disappointed.

But this time she found nothing about either of them. Wasn’t that typical! As soon as it was a question of women or something to do with women, the encyclopedia was about as informative as a moon crater. Was the whole work censored by the Society for the Protection of Men?

Gaarder, I feel, successfully throws light where it is most needed. We do not hear about women philosophers or thinkers from way back during the Middle Ages, and somehow or other, perhaps we have been pre-conditioned to not think about what’s not there. It is a norm to believe, perhaps women of the old days really were passive in nature, and were happy to just sit at home and be controlled.

But with reading this, perhaps it is not so. Perhaps women have always been fighting for equality, and perhaps women have contributed more to society than we learn of today.

Maybe too, we should have a look at our world today, and think of how our society might be reflected 200 years from now. Would the story of this era have an equal distribution of male and female contributors?


This is a book to read, re-read, and read again some more. This is a book that inspires thinking, reflection, and more reading of other books. This is a book to love.

If I may just leave a few more quotes:

“Death does not concern us,” Epicurus said quite simply, “because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”


“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” – The German poet Goethe


“But philosophy is not a harmless party game. It’s about who we are and where  we come from. Do you think we learn enough about that at school?”
“Nobody can answer questions like that anyway.”
“Yes but we don’t even learn to ask them!”


A composition – and every worok of art is one – is created in a wondrous interplay between imagination and reason, or between mind and reflection. For there will always be an element of chance in the creative process. You have to turn the sheep loose before you can start to herd them.


The most subversive people are those who ask questions. Giving answers is not nearly as threatening. Any one question can be more explosive than a thousand answers.


Rating: 5

If it were at all possible, I’d give it a 5++. But I don’t think rating systems work that way. Better keep it to the scale. =)

*P.S. It seems one either loves this book to bits, or hates it in a similar manner. =) Keeps things interesting, no?

Challenges: TBR Challenge 2009, Lost in Translation Challenge 2009, Women Unbound Challenge


§ 8 Responses to Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

  • mee says:

    I’m intrigued! 🙂 I’d love to learn philosophy and its history in simplistic non-text-book-dry way. I will look for it. Thank you for the review!

  • su says:

    @ mee: I really hope you like it!

  • Sakura says:

    This is one of the first books of philosophy I read and I loved it too! It is a brilliant introduction to a subject that is relevant then and now and about our search for who we are and our place in the universe. I remember giving it as gifts to a lot of people. Your review is really great and shows how much thought went into reading the book.

  • su says:

    @ Sakura: I’ve read such a range of reviews on this book really, some slamming it and saying it is a complete waste of time, and yet others, like yourself who say they enjoyed the book thoroughly. But I agree with you. It is definitely a great way to introduce philosophy into one’s life.

  • Aarti says:

    WOW, this sounds really fascinating! And what a thorough and thoughtful review. Thanks for putting this one on my radar.

  • su says:

    @ Aarti: Thanks for dropping by. The book is truly amazing. I hope you do read and love it. =)

  • christa says:

    I borrowed this book ages ago, read a few pages, then decided that instead of keep reading the borrowed copy, I need to buy my own copy, and made notes while I read it (I usually borrow books).

    So I returned the book, bought the book, and well, never picked it up again. I am going to add it back to my TBR list on my blog (link to your great review – love the quotes!) to remind myself that I need to read it.

  • su says:

    @ Christa: I know what you mean about deciding to buy the book. I’m still hunting for the book (for a decent price), so I’m glad I’ve finished the book. I’m already looking forward to rereading it when I finally purchase it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder at su[shu].


%d bloggers like this: