(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)
This is the book that I always answer with when someone asks me what I think is, without question, the best book in the history of literature. I have a few reasons for that but perhaps the most significant of them is that it is, of all literature, the book that I most would love to have written. If I had only ever written one book in my life and it was this, I would be far beyond satisfied. Sadly, it was already written before I published my first book and it’s one of those things that, once it’s done well, and in this case exceptionally well, it really doesn’t need to be done again. It’s inspired a lot of my writing both stylistally and thematically and I suspect it has had that impact on a whole generation of young authors.
Sophie is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in suburban Norway. But she’s every fourteen-year-old girl in every place. Not to mention she’s also the embodiment of knowledge growing up. So it’s a coming-of-age story with the protagonist being Sofia, the goddess of wisdom. As the book opens, she is coming home from school, bored by its useless and meaningless rote learning and irrelevance to life, to find a letter from a philosopher who changes her whole understanding of the world. Through the book she reads and hears the history of western thought (and some eastern thought, although not enough for me but we have to remember it was written at a time when western knowledge of eastern thoughts was far less developed and there was no Wikipedia to fall back on) and experiences the questions of reality and existence on a deep and metaphysical level. Without getting overwhelmed by them and confusing everyone.
It’s a history book and a novel. Actually, it’s a novel with a novel inside it and that makes the whole thing far more interesting. As for the style, the language is relatively simple. It’s not particularly written for young adults but it’s perfectly accessible to even young teens. But the poetic descriptions and the use of striking images and harsh contrasts for people, for concepts and for the floating and fluctuating experience of life, reality and time, not to mention an exploration of the nature of gods and fate, all come together to be the literary equivalent of the perfect cup of hot chocolate on a winter night in front of a fire (which I believe might have been my reality when I first read this, having been given a copy from its first English-language version the Christmas it was released).
The entire book is an exploration of ethics and morality. Is controling someone ever justified? What about if they’re just in your imagination? And once someone else has imagined them, too, are they still just your creation or do they take on a life of their own? What is life? What is the relationship between fate and expectation and self-fulfilling prophecies? Is western knowledge correct and, given that it’s obviously not, to what degree are we required to explore the world outside our own history? Do we really exist? How can we know one way or the other or does it even matter? These are just the beginning, of course, but it is a whirlwind ride through existential introspection without getting mired in self-wallowing and self-denial (which can be beautiful, just ask Camus, but is not quite so pleasant as approaching the topic with the energy of young life exploring the world).
As for practical world knowledge, the book functions as a textbook on the history of western thought and a critique, at times a very harsh one, of being focused on generalized thought to the point of forgetting the world around us or having too narrow a vision — not understanding the other side of questions like immigration, racial prejudice, religious freedom or even things as apparently simple as what’s beautiful or what’s for dinner. In the first ten pages, you will likely experience more new knowledge than in most of the courses you’ve taken in your life.
There you have it. My favorite book, one I read probably once or twice every year since I first encountered it. But beyond being my favorite, it’s a tour-de-force of literary exploration. It’s an existentialist romp through history, a philosophical debate between thoughts inside a mind that doesn’t know whether it exists and a story of a girl waking up to adulthood only to discover that childhood might have just been an illusion to begin with. If you’re going to read one book, just one, for the rest of your life, this is the book. The other works that I discuss here are often things that are generally suggested to think about. This one, though? It will change the way you think about the world and about what literature can do.
[Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder on Amazon]