A teenaged boy is encouraged to start thinking big in this playful philosophy primer.
Old thinkers never die—they just wind up in the World of Ideas, a sort of limbo where they’re free to while away the hours debating matters of morality and identity. Among the most prominent residents there are Socrates and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who’ve made a wager that Socrates can’t help an average person make philosophy a useful part of life. Their unwitting guinea pig is Ben Warner, a 15-year-old who’s more concerned with his next soccer match, figuring out girls and avoiding his boss’s wrath at the fish-and-chips shop where he works. But he’s intrigued enough by his attractive guide—Socrates’ secretary, Lila—to begin making regular visits to the World of Ideas. (The towel closet in his house is a portal.) There, he meets pairs of people who take conflicting sides on philosophy’s key questions: Can you trust what your senses tell you? Are right and wrong absolute or relative? What is happiness? Is there such a thing as free will? The arguments usually aren’t attached to specific philosophers or points in history, which makes the novel only moderately useful as a textbook. Indeed, philosophy’s big names appear only briefly or in comedic contexts; John Donne and Emmanuel Kant make cameo appearances, Wittgenstein has an odd fixation on welding, and Aristotle is apparently nursing a crush on Simone de Beauvoir. Between the line drawings interspersed throughout and the lightly didactic tone, this is best approached as a sort of adult version of The Phantom Tollbooth, not a successor to Jostein Gaarder’s more sophisticated Sophie’s World. But Eyre has a great talent for injecting humor into dialogue, which keeps the debates entertaining while retaining their intellectual rigor; the arguments bounce back and forth rapidly, and Ben’s engaged responses reflect the reader’s own.
Not quite fit for the classroom, but a fun romp nonetheless.