Book Review: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder (One Star)

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Book Review: Sophie’s World: a Novel about the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder

One Star

“While people were seeking answers to the ultimate questions, they have discovered clear and final solutions to many other problems.”

I wanted to like this book. It has a great purpose and intriguing approach: relating the history of philosophy to young readers through a set of embedded stories about young Norwegians approaching their fifteen birthday. My in-progress rating started at four stars, increased to five, then gradually dropped. By the end, it’s nihilistic, materialistic propaganda masquerading as “a novel about the history of philosophy.”

Let’s start with what’s good: Uses common vocabulary to discuss the big issues of existence. When I started studying philosophy fifty years ago, survey courses plunged us into concepts like epistemology, ontology, and eschatology with little regard for why philosophy developed. Most of us rolled our eyes. I persisted, found the study of a lifetime and eventually majored in philosophy.

The story within a story within a story (within a story) format pulls the reader along. When the first story within a story was introduced, my estimation of the book rose.

“It’s one thing to collect Barbie dolls. But it’s worse to be one.”

What could possibly go wrong? Lots. Basically the book is what it purports until the lessons reach the nineteenth century, with appropriate connections to developments in science and religion along the way to keep the reader grounded in history. At that point, Gaarder stops teaching philosophy and starts peddling an agenda. For reasons known only to him, the philosophy lessons take a back seat to the developing–and entertaining–nested fictions. In the process, Gaarder broadens from philosophy to related fields, but his focus is selective and his teaching becoming didactic.

Gaarder mentioned no economist until he introduces Karl Marx, no naturalists before Charles Darwin, and no psychologists before (or after) Sigmund Freud. And having dropped those men in, he leaves them lay, without an investigation of what has happened to their ideas since. About Marx, he opines, “There is no doubt that socialism has largely succeeded in combating an inhumane society.” Really? Discussing Darwin he writes, “Nothing in nature is random,” followed a page later by “Utterly random variations finally produced man.” Huh? He later redefines “imagination” as Darwinian. He calls Freud a “cultural philosopher.” Then redefines “inspiration” as Freudian.

Sophie (and Alberto, Hilde and Albert) are reduced to ventriloquist’s dummies as Gaarder presses the hard sell. “Civilized” is equated feminism. No mention of race, Hitler, the Holocaust, income mal-distribution (other than in Marxist terms), identity issues, or the threat of nuclear weapons. Norway’s centuries of discrimination against the indigenous Sami is not mentioned.  Sophie’s World was written in the 1990s, that summer of peace between the fall of the Soviet Union and the attacks of September 11, 2001. It declares the environment as the “most serious” problem humanity currently faces, but touts India as an example of an environmental mindset!

“If we pay absolutely no attention to … hereditary hygiene, we could find ourselves facing a degeneration of the human race.”

Even though Norway (where the stories are set) recognizes children as adults at age eighteen, Gaarder supports child emancipation at fifteen. Gaarder approvingly reports at Sophie’s fifteenth birthday party her co-age friend initiates sexual intercourse, then proudly announces, “Mom, I’m going to have a baby.”

Gaarder dismisses books on new age, alternate lifestyles and mysticism as “Much of it is humbug. … A lot of it is a kind of pornography.”

Quibble: Gaarder mentions Hilde’s father in a “UN uniform.” In my experience there is no UN uniform. Military on UN duty wear their national uniforms with a blue UN beret, a UN helmet, or arm band marked “UN.”

This book won many European young reader awards in the 1990s. It’s been translated in 53 languages. Would Gaarder write the later chapters differently from the perspective of another thirty years?

I don’t recommend it to anyone, least of all fourteen-year-olds. If you’re inclined to follow the crowd anyway, don’t just read the first ten or fifty pages; read the last fifty pages. I’m sorry this is so long, but you have a right to know why I found such a widely acclaimed book so repulsive. (I don’t normally post low ratings, but this book’s popularity argued for a counter review.)

“She who wins the lot of life must also draw the lot of death, because the lot of life is death.”

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