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CARPE LIBRUM: Studying eastern and western philosophy through simply beautiful texts

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy
Jostein Gaarder
Berkley Books, 1991 (English translation, 1994), 518 pgs.

The Tao of Pooh
Benjamin Hoff
Dutton, 1982, 158 pgs.

5Jostein Gaarder opens “Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy” with Goethe’s observation and references it repeatedly throughout the next 518 pages. Fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen arrives home from school to find an envelope in the mailbox addressed to her. Inside she finds two questions: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” The two questions are at the root of the human experience and are essential for an examined life. She quickly and unexpectedly finds herself involved in an unorthodox philosophy correspondence course. Some messages are delivered by a large golden dog named “Hermes”; others literally appear underfoot.

Sophie’s self-appointed philosophy instructor is one Alberto Knox, who, frankly, is a little creepy and just a little magical. Meanwhile Sophie keeps finding messages for a young lady the same age as she is named “Hilde.” What is going on? While Sophie tries to solve the mystery of Hilde, Alberto takes her on a tour of the history of western philosophy.

At heart, “Sophie’s World” is a message book. The story frequently is sacrificed to lengthy monologues about the history of philosophy. However, the monologues are still interesting, to the point, and a compelling introduction to the great minds that have shaped western civilization. Eventually, the story that strings together the book becomes compelling and moves the discussion to a higher and more urgent plane.
Gaarder taught philosophy in Norway for years before writing the book, and it came across as a teaching aid for a course in comparative western thought. Anyone who regrets not taking an introduction to western philosophy in college (or those who have one coming up) should read “Sophie’s World.” It demonstrates in a memorable and relatable fashion how the great philosopher built upon each other’s work.

There are several reasons we study philosophy: One is to see how the human perception of our world has changed and evolved. Another is to find community in the search for self and place in the world. Still another is to learn how to process information: to ask questions, identify fallacies, organize data, analyze and draw conclusions.

But what about eastern philosophy? Everyday I talk with people who are looking for books on an introduction of Buddhism or to help further their studies on eastern philosophies. Now, I have a personality diametrically opposed to Taoism. Quite simply, I just cannot calm down enough to experience it. However, “The Tao of Pooh” remains one of my favorite books for introducing the ideas of Taosim to westerners. Benjamin Hoff utilizes the writings and characters of A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh, and the illustrations of Ernest H. Shepard, to explore what Taoism looks like. It isn’t cloaked in great mystery and majesty, but rather it is about as down-to-earth and approachable as a book on philosophy can be.

6Along the way Hoff questions the ideas of western “time savings,” like fast food and microwaves, etc. If they work so well, how come we don’t have an excess of time? For a modern look at how the teachings of the ancient masters are incredibly relevant, there are few books more entertaining and enjoyable than “The Tao of Pooh.”

Maybe that is what feels lacking in so many approaches to thought and philosophy—the idea that the inside of your head should be the most entertaining place to spend your spare time. For me, the more I learn the more questions I have. A working knowledge of philosophy isn’t so much about providing answers as it has been about giving me a rubric upon which to build. Or rather to ask deeper questions—and to apply deeper answers. At a time that analysis and thoughtful reflection seem to be in short supply, it feels like a luxury to spend time in my own head examining and questioning thoughts put forth by some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. I don’t expect to find something greater or more insightful than they did, but, like Hoff demonstrates with the “Tao of Pooh,” I try to find a way to live the actions reflected in their ideas.

I do suffer from a sense of idealism that can require effort and will translate into daily life. I miss the sense of absolutism I had in my teens and early 20s—when I was so certain about so many things. Perhaps the greatest gift of aging has been the opportunity to see these ideas grow and change with experience. How sad to live a life that was unable to change and expand.

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