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Friday, January 06, 2006

Playing with Ideas in Sophie's World

Football elation can’t last forever, so this blog now returns to its usual grey for a post about a book. (Perhaps we’ll try yellow when Lance wins his next Tour de France.)

When I taught high school debate I always wished I had a book to share with my students that would provide a fun and easy introduction to philosophy and that would hold the interest of kids ranging from freshmen to seniors. Apparently, a Norwegian high school philosophy teacher named Jostein Gaarder thought the same thing, so he wrote Sophie's World.

This has been on my bookshelf for several years (so, as my wife points out, I did have it while I was teaching debate) but I’ve only just now found the time to read it, and I loved it! The book tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who begins receiving cryptic letters in her mailbox. She soon finds herself enrolled in a correspondence course with a mysterious philosopher.

Gaarder does an excellent job presenting the history of human thought about existence from the early myths to philosophy to modern science in a whimsical and good-natured mystery wherein Sophie’s philosophy lessons become the clues to solving the mysteries in her own life. The story takes strange twists and turns that mirror the thinking of the various philosophers Sophie studies and ultimately each turn provides some kind of contextual example of the ideas Gaarder is trying to illuminate.

It’s clear Gaarder has a specific audience in mind – young people being introduced to philosophy – but I think even one well educated in philosophy would enjoy this simply because Gaarder manages to capture the wonder and thrill of learning for the first time about big ideas that sadly gets beaten out of so many of us. The book is never pedantic, always charming, and provides many jumping off points for thought-games and other mental excursions into the nature of both storytelling and reality itself. Sophie’s World never takes itself too seriously and reminds the reader just how much fun it can be to play with ideas.

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Blogger Jessica said...

A high school teacher I adore introduced me to this book. He liked the idea so much he even sent a few bizarre letters to students asking philosophical questions (with their parent's permission). I think the effort mainly went unnoticed, but the concept is beautiful.

10:32 AM  
Blogger James said...

That's a great idea. Did you get one of the letters?

5:59 PM  

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