Dressed all in black from head to toe, Jostein Gaarder does not come across as an internationally acclaimed best selling author and novelist.
“Human beings have always asked philosophical questions”. This would have been the first sentence of Sophie’s World according to Jostein Gaarder if fate had not intervened. He almost groans in pain at the thought. When Gaarder first started writing Sophie’s world, he assumed that it would make no money. It started out originally as a manual on philosophy before the protagonist Sophie came to him.
His shoes are scuffed, his hair uncombed but from afar, he seems happy and animated. When Jostein talks, he does so with gesticulation and enthusiasm – it’s as if he can’t get the words out fast enough. Knowing that he was a philosophy teacher prior to becoming an author, one can almost imagine him standing in front of blackboard in that when he speaks, he naturally teaches and we, his loyal readers are his students.
I was lucky enough to attend The Life and Times of Jostein Gaarder at The Open Book Festival in Cape Town, a talk hosted by Karina Szczurek. Best known for Sophie’s World: A Novel About The History Of Philosophy, this is it’s 25th anniversary.
The number one question he gets asked by fans at literary festivals around the world is, Why is Sophie a girl? According to Gaarder, as far as he knows there are only two genders so Why not? Philosophy is a desire for wisdom and wisdom is a female concept. Gaarder added that women and girls try to understand whereas men/boys want to be understood.
At the age of eleven, Gaarder had an epiphany and started his philosophical journey to know more about the meaning of life. He asked his parents and teachers, isn’t it weird that we exist? Instead of taking him seriously, they thought it was unhealthy for him to ask too many questions or questions of that nature. He promised himself to never become to accustomed to the world or to stop asking those kind of questions.
Having taught philosophy previously, he wanted to capture some of his students before becoming a full time writer and so began Sophie’s World. Gaarder never thought more than a select few of the Norwegian population would be interested in reading his novel. If five hundred people read it, it would have been enough. Twenty five years later and Sophie’s World has been translated into sixty languages and has almost fifty-million copies in print.
If Gaarder were to rewrite Sophie’s World now, he would add in some of the Eastern philosophies as to include all of his readers from across the world.
Gaarder believes that children are natural born philosophers in that their curiosity is philosophy and they question everything and that this should be encouraged.
He has yet to lose his childlike fascination with the world and for this, our world is ever that much richer.
Words by Amy Kaye