Whilst I certainly did enjoy reading books throughout my childhood and early teenage years, I think that books started to make a more significant impression on me from the age of about 15 or 16 onwards. During the two or three years before going to university I read such books as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I found each of these works extraordinary and each left me pondering their contents for a long time afterwards.

The reason I mention this here is that another key book that I read during this period was Sophie’s World, by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. If you have not come across this book before, it really is quite something. Essentially, it is a pretty large and comprehensive history of Western philosophy (there is even a 9 page index at the back), told in novel form. Now, while that might sound like a terrible idea, the incredible thing is that it really works.

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

The basic premise of the book is that a middle-aged philosophy teacher named Alberto Knox appears out of nowhere and starts providing a teenage girl called Sophie Amundsen with an education in philosophy. (Things actually get more complicated quite quickly, but I won’t bother trying to outline the other narrative twists and turns here.)

The amazing thing is that the philosophical content of the book is by no means light-weight or superficial. You really do get to the meat of what different philosophers and schools of thought were all about (spread over 427 pages), yet at the same time, it is also incredibly readable. I would certainly describe the narrative as a real page-turner.

And it seems that I am by no means the only one to love this book. In 1995, which was when the English version of the novel was published, Sophie’s World was reported to be the best-selling book in the world that year. That’s quite an achievement for something that many would have imagined would only have had a very small niche market.

Anyway, 17 years after first reading the book, I decided I’d like to re-read it in the New Year, so this I did, and I found it every bit as good as I had remembered. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the philosophy of ideas.

So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…

If you liked this, you might also enjoy The Solitaire Mystery or The Christmas Mystery, which are also philosophical novels written by the same author.