Does This Reader Really Know What She Thinks She Knows?

Right now, I'm reading Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder. The book, which published 15 years ago, is more "history of philosophy" than "novel," but I'm feeling virtuous because reading the book makes me think I'm catching up on the philosophy courses I avoided in college. The fact that this particular course is delivered, fictionally, by a drooling labrador who carries philosophical tracts in his mouth to a 14-year-old Norwegian girl at the behest of a mysterious philosopher makes it all go down easier.

Last month, I read Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, which is about the Opium Wars from the point of the view of the Indians who grew the poppies and signed up to serve as coolies on colonial plantations. Now I can smugly claim knowledge about a part of history I previously knew nothing about.

But I can't really, can I? I don't know what in this engrossing novel was based on fact, and what was fictionalized, just as I don't know whether Gaarder's interpretation of the Sophists or Aristotle or Spinoza or Hume reflects scholarly consensus or is idiosyncratic to serve his story's purpose.

Reading fiction for facts puts me in the same position as all those kids fooled by the Sneaky Chef: Here I thought I was eating guacamole, but there's really spinach inside! Those kids won't learn to eat healthful spinach on their own, and I, alas, probably will not be picking up Plato's Dialogues. And yet there's something delicious about learning this way, if only I knew what I don't really know.

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  February 2, 2009; 11:51 AM ET Rachel Hartigan Shea
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I loved "Sophie's World"! Such a delightful way to review Philosophy 101. And it's the kind of book you can share with a thoughtful young person, too. There was talk of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" being a similar philosophically oriented book, but I haven't read it yet.

Posted by: ronchar | February 2, 2009 8:37 PM

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