Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

*Spoilers Below*

This is not a book for me. I found it draggy, creaky, didactic and boring. It's been a long time since a book provoked that much ennui. (I finished it anyway, because I am nothing if not stubborn.) What amused me were the vast differences in people's reactions when I told them what I was reading and that I didn't like it very much.

At my book club, I described it to the group, and one of the members fervently agreed with me that it was terribly boring and so didactic as to be almost unreadable. I felt justified. Then, a few days later, getting picked up at 6:10 am to work all day, I said nearly the same thing, and someone's response was "I loved that book! I thought it was charming!" So then I felt awkward.

What I take from that is that this is a book that is divisive. So I apologize to everyone who was delighted by this book. I was bored by tears. I could see the scaffolding. It was clunky. It was heavy-handed. It is not for me. It doesn't help that I remember the great philosophy course I took in OAC very well, and so I already knew most of the philosophy the author was throwing like large chunks of dry bread.

It's not the philosophy that's the problem. It's the story it's hung around. The dialogue is painfully bad - and maybe it's only in the bits where we're in the book within the book, but I don't think that makes it forgivable. If your story is about the people in a book within a book recognizing their fictionality, the book had better be well written. Otherwise, I don't really care. I'm sorry if that's being discriminatory against badly written characters, but man, I have little enough time to spend caring about all the well-written characters in my reading life.

The dialogue was just painful, though. Clunky, and you could see where the responses were there to bring out the next didactic point, rather than coming from any real character place. I didn't really care if Sophie escaped into the margins. I really didn't. She was only the cardboard figure of the person in a Socratic dialogue who knows nothing. Some of the lines made me wince they were so obviously there only to advance the next philosophical point.

There is just so little pleasure to be found in this novel. The idea is interesting, but it's so rickety. Maybe it's the translation - I am not reading this in the original. But still. There is so little pleasure.

I particularly hated the way Sophie had a mystical experience - she just had it, as soon as it was mentioned, and then it was gone, and apparently left no lasting effect. What? That is not the way mystical experiences happen. There's a later Alice-in-Wonderland inspired moment where she is clunkily given revelations about the individuality of all people, and the oneness of all people and it's so, so overt and not in any way moving.

Wait till the next book I review, which I will argue does beautifully what this book does badly, without ever drawing attention to what it's doing. That book (Station Eleven) moved me to tears. This moved me to a slightly raised eyebrow. I felt part of nothing while reading this book. The philosophical sections are fine, but far too textbook-like, and the prose in between is painful.

I apologize again to those who thought this was charming.

1 comment:

  1. No need to apologize. ;) Your opinions are valid simply because they are yours and expressed so well!

    This is one of my favourite books of all time, ever since I first read it back in Grade 10 and more recently about 8 years ago.

    I like how you keep saying "didactic" as if it’s a bad thing. :P To me, didactic tones can be good or bad—Le Guin's The Dispossessed is another example of a very didactic book that is nevertheless excellent, whereas Atlas Shrugged might be an example of a didactic book that is harder to read.

    I would also agree with you that the characterization and dialogue in this book are entirely in service to its didactic purpose. But I’m fine with that. I just love the idea of a novel whose entire purpose is to teach the history of Western philosophy. It’s an incredibly ambitious idea. The fact that it doesn’t for some people is unfortunate but probably inevitable.

    Above all else, though, I just love the idea that this could be intellectual YA. This is a novel about a 15-year-old girl getting excited to learn about philosophy, to open her mind and see that there is so much more out there in the world.