November 14, 1994

Looking-Glass Philosophy

An odd new novel blends mystery with metaphysics


First, think of a beginner's guide to philosophy, written by a schoolteacher for teens and young adults. Next, imagine a fantasy novel -- something like a modern-day version of Through the Looking Glass. Meld these disparate genres, and what do you get? Well, what you get is an improbable international best seller.

To the amazement of its Norwegian author, Jostein Gaarder, 42, Sophie's World, subtitled A Novel About the History of Philosophy, has become a runaway hit practically everywhere it has appeared. In the author's homeland, it has been on the best-seller lists for nearly four years. The novel has been published in 30 countries, including China, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea. Late last month Farrar, Straus & Giroux issued an English version in the U.S. (403 pages; $19). Despite reviews that were mixed at best, the first edition of 50,000 copies sold out in less than two weeks.

Sophie Amundsen, the eponymous heroine of this peculiar book, is an ordinary 14-year-old schoolgirl who lives with her mother in an ordinary Norwegian suburb. (Her dad captains an oil tanker and is away most of the time.) One day Sophie gets an unsigned letter in the mail containing only a three-word question: "Who are you?" Soon she receives another anonymous message, asking, "Where did the world come from?"

As Sophie ponders these questions, a three-page typewritten letter arrives, also unsigned, that turns out to be the first lesson in a course on the history of philosophy. At first by letter and then in person, a mysterious guru who calls himself Alberto Knox guides Sophie through the ideas of great thinkers, from the pre-Socratics to Jean-Paul Sartre. Philosophy's quest for truth, Knox tells his pupil, "resembles a detective story."

Meanwhile, Sophie has to play detective on another front. From time to time she gets postcards that are intended for another 14-year-old, Hilde Moller Knag, who by coincidence also has an absentee father, serving with the U.N. forces in Lebanon. Who is this Hilde? Why is her mail addressed to Sophie? And is it just coincidence that Hilde and Sophie have the same birthday? Suffice it to say that the answers involve a talking dog and a magic mirror, as well as the relation of illusion to reality, free will vs. predetermination and -- shades of Pirandello -- fictional characters seeking to escape their author's plot.

Gaarder, who is married and the father of two sons ages 10 and 18, teaches at a high school in Oslo. He wrote Sophie's World to fill a gap. Stores were full of New Age pap and other mystical mush, but there were no books that would introduce young people to serious philosophy. By trying to blend fantasy with head-cracking summaries of deep thought, Gaarder feared that he had "sat down between two stools. But I was mistaken. Sophie's World fell on top of all the stools."

So why is this book doing so well? Ole Vind, who teaches philosophy at a Danish high school, believes more and more people are seeking the answers to life's mystery in what he calls "the real thing" rather than in astrology or pseudo-religion. On both sides of the Atlantic, the book is being used as a text in college philosophy courses. And despite the author's disdain for New Age spirituality, Thomas Hallock, marketing director of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, suggests that Sophie's World appeals to the kind of reader who made Jonathan Livingston Seagull a touchy-feely hit of the '70s.

Still, Sophie's World may not be for everyone. The characters are half- dimensional, the plot creaks, and Gaarder's prose (or the translation by Paulette Moller) has a distinct flavor of bark. As fiction, Sophie's World deserves no better than a D+. But as a precis of great thought, Gaarder's tour de force rates a solid B.