Sophie's World, subtitled A Novel About the History of Philosophy, is at first glance the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Sophie who gets involved in a mysterious correspondence course in the history of Western philosophy. At the same time Sophie begins receiving letters from her philosophy teacher, however, she also gets mail intended for a total stranger, fourteen-year-old Hilde Møller Knag, and this second unexpected development in Sophie's otherwise uncomplicated life turns out to be of crucial importance as well. To say much more about the story would be to reveal too much about the plot, so I'll discuss some other philosophical aspects of the book instead.
I read Sophie's World because I remembered a friend of mine telling me that it was a good story, but in many ways totally predictable, because he'd had so many philosophy classes. Since I have only ever taken one philosophy class (which didn't involve much history, and I didn't enjoy it much anyway), I figured that wouldn't be a problem for me. However, it turns out I knew more about philosophy than I realized, and I definitely knew enough about the history of human approaches to knowledge, and science in particular, to be a little bored during the sections on models of the solar system, not to mention Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. I felt vaguely ashamed, like I was turning into one of the people who complain that the philosophy in The Matrix isn't deep enough for them. In many ways, it's much more difficult to write an entertaining introductory-level text (and yes, film is text) that's approachable and understandable to anyone interested in the material than it is to spout arcane discussion that presumes your audience knows what you're talking about. Both The Matrix and Sophie's World are good examples of the former, which can still be enjoyed by audiences who know a bit about philosophy, and that's high praise indeed.
Jostein Gaarder, the author of Sophie's World, has also written a collection of short stories and another novel, The Solitaire Mystery, but before Sophie's World became an international bestseller, he taught philosophy for eleven years in Norway. In Sophie's World, he clearly has an axe to grind about the importance of philosophy to a general education, and he argues it persuasively and well. Better still, by including a concise and well-written history of philosophy interwoven with his argument, he helps make it moot, which I thought was particularly cunning.
Another fun aspect of Sophie's World is the title character's repeated queries about the role of women in the history of philosophy. For her benefit, her teacher ends up taking the piss with respect to the ideas of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and their intellectual descendants regarding women, which I found particularly gratifying. Similarly, I enjoyed the author's repeated shameless plugs advocating environmentalism and some kind of world government, perhaps through the United Nations. Finally, reading Sophie's World came with a kickin' soundtrack, for me at least. From the chapter on Plato onwards, the voices in my head sang "The Origin of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, at least until the chapter on David Hume, when they gave in and switched to the Monty Python "Philosophers Song". Good times, I tell you, good times.
Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie's World. New York: Berkley Books. Translated from the original Norwegian by Paulette Møller. Translation copyright 1994 by Paulette Møller. Originally published in Norwegian under the title Sofies Verden copyright 1991 by H. Ashehoug & Co., Oslo. ISBN 0-425-15225-1