Customer Review

44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars IN ALL PROBABILITY...., 29 Nov 2001
This review is from: Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (Paperback)
The bad news: It's not as good as the hype might lead you to expect. The good news: It's better than most of the other over-hyped pop-philosophy blockbusters on the shelves.
'Sophie's World' is at its worst when it pretends to be the sort of novel you would read purely for entertainment. That's because it starts out as a very good novel but finishes as a very bad one. Early on it catches your interest with an intriguing mystery and efficient classical narrative. Then about half way through, the author reveals his hand and ruins the plot. We are left with just another bit of post-modern ironic detachment or some such gimmick. From then on the fate of the characters ceases to matter, and as a novel it's all downhill from there on.
The book is at its best when it sticks to what Gaarder does best: lecturing on philosophy. This is where the fictive elements work best - by providing a character to voice the questions in our own heads. The author shows a good gra!sp of what will make sense to an uninformed reader, and provides a gentle ramble through a couple of dozen centuries of human thought that will help most people's understanding of the world in which we live.
That is not to say that Gaarder dispatches all periods in history with equal aplomb. His dealing with the metaphysical and ontological abstractions (jargon-free equivalent = world of ideas) of ancient Greece and the middle ages is exemplary. He manages to explain the more-or-less-unexplainable in terms of the easily-understood, in a way that more school texts should copy. Even the prickly thickets of 20th century existentialism yield up some of their unappetizing secrets under his patient hand.
Gaarder is least successful in dealing with creeds that go beyond pure ideas and involve a challenge to behaviour and lifestyle. His treatment of Marxism (which is not so much about ideas as it is about action) is shallow. His survey of Christianity (which is not about! ideas at all, but entirely about relationships) is derisory.
Amazon's warehouses contain better novels (for a first-class Scandinavian novel of ideas, try "Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow") and better introductions to philosophy (e.g. Alain de Botton's 'Consolations of Philosophy'). In the end, however, 'Sophie's World' is surprisingly successful as a hybrid - it makes learning fun and deserves to be read.
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