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“Who are you?”, “Where does the world come from?”, these are the questions that mysteriously appear in the mailbox of 14 year old Sophie Amundsen.  This is the beginning of Sophie’s correspondence course in philosophy.  It may not seem like a natural fit for a book; a fourteen year old schoolgirl living in Norway and learning philosophy but it works.

As mentioned, the story is set in Norway and this book was translated from Norwegian.  The story starts with Sophie walking home from school and finding these mysterious, anonymous notes.  As with most novels we see everything from the perspective of the protagonist, Sophie.  So we are as much in the dark as she is as to where the notes came from or why they are in her mailbox.  We are then taken on an intriguing journey as her mysterious correspondent keeps delivering more notes and papers to expand her knowledge.  At this point we start to learn about the beginnings of philosophy ourselves as we are reading everything Sophie reads.  This is an interesting way to position what is, in many ways, a text book.  It’s a history and explanation of philosophy and philosophers surrounded by a fictional teenage narrator dealing with normal teenage life.

I studied philosophy at University and I have a basic grounding in some of the major players in this field but I wouldn’t say I could explain exactly who believed what and who came up with specific ideas or ways of looking at the world we live in.  But since reading this book I feel much more confident that I really do understand the philosophy movement and how it has spread and developed over the centuries.

Gaarder has created a story that allows us to connect with a character and their life and interspersed it with fact.  I won’t give anything away but I will say that Sophie’s story develops into part of the philosophical discussion and by the end of the book my head was full of questions.  I really enjoyed this work, perhaps it helped that I enjoy philosophy but I do believe that anyone with even the vaguest interest in philosophy would get a lot from this.  It’s fiction but it’s not, it’s a text book but it isn’t, it’s just a really well written work that provides a great overview of the history of the philosophy movement and the major players and asks questions of the reader that we don’t always take the time to ask ourselves, never mind try to answer!

“Who are you?”, “Where does the world come from?”; I sometimes think it would be nice to have an easy answer but then again, isn’t that why we read;  to explore new worlds and ideas, and try to put ourselves in others shoes?  It’s good to ask questions we can’t answer; the world would be a bit boring if we knew everything.

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