Author:  Jostein Gaarder (Paulette Møller, translator)

Publisher: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

ISBN: 0-374-26642-5

Sophie's World is an interesting hybrid. The subtitle calls it "A Novel About the History of Philosophy." It was written by Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian philosophy teacher, translated by Paulette Møller, and published in 1994. It begins, "Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school."

Sophie is almost fifteen years old, lives with her mother in Lillesand, a real small town on the south coast of Norway. Her father is an oil tanker captain and away for long periods of time. On page 4 Sophie receives a mysterious envelope that contains a slip of paper on which is written, "Who are you?" On page 6, another envelope, paper, and question: "Where does the world come from?" On page 8, birthday greetings to a Hilde Møller Knag c/o Sophie. Sophie has no idea who has sent the questions or the greetings. 

The questions were sent by Alberto Knox who begins a "Course in Philosophy" printed in separate sanserif typeface to set off the lectures on Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and the Existentialists. It would be possible to read only the sanserif sections for a decent, if limited, introduction to philosophy.

Because there are any number of decent, if limited, introductions to philosophy available, and because Gaarder wanted to sugar-coat the lessons, he embedded them in a story about Sophie and Hilde. We learn that Hilde also has a fifteenth birthday, lives in Lillesand, and her father is also absent. He is part of a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon. 

Part of the book's pleasure is seeing how the author plays with philosophical concepts "outside" of the lectures. For example, a some point, the reader realizes that Sophie is a fiction that Hilde is reading about—but of course Hilde is a fiction we readers read about. The book's first question, "Who are you" becomes much more interesting. (It reminded me of the Chinese philosopher's question: "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man?")

If you know nothing about philosophy and want a relatively painless introduction to the major figures, the essence of their major theories, and how questions—and the theories—about truth, reality, and consciousness have changed over the centuries Sophie's World  is a good place to start. 

If you took a couple semesters of introductory philosophy years ago, the book is a useful review. 

If you want to trace the way Gaarder uses different philosophical ideas in novel in which the lessons are embedded, that could give certain readers pleasure.

If you want a couple hours' diversion, however, look elsewhere. Gaarder is a teacher and the point of Sophie's World is to teach. Readers who take the book seriously will learn something.