The Alchemist

There must be something wrong with me. Millions of people read things that make me want to curl up and die.

I’m not being a snob here. It’s not like I sit around stroking my chin and reading Yeats. It’s just that there are beloved, bestselling genres I simply don’t get. And one of them is “random New Agey spiritual advice disguised as novel.”

Normal people pick up such a selection and say, “Goody goody gumdrops!” I say, “God help me, I can’t read another one of these.”

But it turns out I can. So take everything I say about Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist with a grain of salt.

Actually this book didn’t make me want to curl up and die, which coming from me is really high praise. It’s about a shepherd boy who dreams of treasure and sets out to pursue it, meeting a variety of kooky characters that aid him in his quest. On the way he learns that each of us has our own Personal Legend—our calling or mission on earth—something that most people fail to achieve. If we do have the courage to reach for our dreams, however, the universe “conspires in our favor” because the “Soul of the World is nourished by people’s happiness.” It’s a hard road, fraught with obstacles (mostly emotional) and peril (mostly thug-oriented), but the moral is that we can all attain our Personal Legends if we keep at it. And frankly, we should, because “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.”

The ideas in The Alchemist are not new. There are traces of almost all the bestselling New Age books in here, and an especially large dollop of The Celestine Prophecy, what with the conspiring universe, handy omens (“Omens are the individual language in which God talks to you… They are this strange, but very individual language that guides you toward your own destiny”), and the whole format of the book (fictionalized spiritual lesson). Fortunately, The Alchemist is much better written than The Celestine Prophecy; it’s a real novel, even if a thinly veiled one. And Coelho is a real writer, with a dozen novels in print (“one of the bestselling and most influential authors in the world,” proclaims his book bio). Still, as with all the New Age books, there’s a bit of the “blaming the victim” mentality here: if you fail to achieve your biggest dream for your life, it’s your own dang fault. I mean, the universe was conspiring to help you, for god’s sake! What more could you want? But no. You were too cowardly to see it through. You were too chicken. Way to go, loser.

My favorite aspect of the book (besides the term “Personal Legend,” which I am going to start appending to my name) was how the boy’s journeys took him to unexpected places that seemed to be completely unrelated to his mission, but sooner or later led him to acquire new skills and acquaintances that sent him off in new directions and ultimately shaped his life and his quest. The path wasn’t predictable, and I found it very true to life (I’ve had some pretty unexpected jobs in my day), even if I’m not sure that achieving one’s greatest goal is always at the end of that rainbow.

I was less thrilled with this passage, taken from Coelho’s introduction:

First: we are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible. We grow up with this idea, and as the years accumulate, so too do the layers of prejudice, fear, and guilt. There comes a time when our personal calling is so deeply buried in our soul as to be invisible. But it’s still there.

Okay. Maybe that was true in Coelho’s boyhood. But I live in a community where everyone is told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is possible. No dream is too outlandish, no child too unfit. Nobody here is stupid, graceless, or inept. Our children are all special, gifted, eternally capable. Virtually every Little Leaguer in Menlo Park makes an All-Star team. The regular math class is now called “Advanced.”

It’s just ridiculous. And it’s not healthy. True self-esteem balances a basic belief in one’s ability to achieve goals with a realistic picture of one’s strengths and weaknesses. It acknowledges that to do something extraordinary, you’re probably going to have to work really hard, whether or not the universe pitches in to lighten the load. And it acknowledges that there are certain things most people can never do and never be.

I know I’m never going to be an Olympic athlete or a supermodel. I’m too old to try out for American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance, even if I were talented enough (which I’m not) for either one.

Yet somehow I manage to get out of bed in the morning. (Although I usually don’t get dressed. Freelance writing has its benefits.) They say that these coddled kids are going to have nervous breakdowns when they realize they aren’t special and gifted and eternally capable. I hope they do. Because it’s in the honest analysis of who we are—our real gifts and passions—that we find something like The Alchemist’s Personal Legend.

I’m not blaming a generation of spoiled yuppie offspring on Paulo Coelho. In fact, I think he would probably agree with me; you have to know yourself well to know (or stay in touch with) what you truly want in this life. I just think it’s interesting that, once again, we have a bestselling book hinging on the premise that the society around us is constantly beating us down, sapping our strength, and telling us “no.” I just don’t buy it. I see a culture inundated with happy endings, yes-you-cans, and inspiration of the sappiest kind. This is a world desperate to convince itself that life is good. But I think we’d be far more likely to believe that if we stopped hiding from reality and accepted that we live in a world that hands out yes and no in equal measure. Only by acknowledging life’s potential disappointments can we really appreciate the goodness around us—and be truly grateful for the joys and blessings we do have.

Sincerely yours,

Lisa Adams, Personal Legend

2 thoughts on “The Alchemist

  1. I am Hispanic, and have had to tolerate fallacies as audacious as “you are Hispanic, so you have to love Paulo Coelho”.

    We all know Coelho writes high quality one-calorie chick-lit, and that serious critics cannot be bothered to even open his books. And the fact that ‘The Alchemist’ is so keen on undermining the readers’ scarce self-esteems will not surprise us greatly, if we remember that badass-boyfriend-with-drooling-girlfriend couple you and me have certainly known in our lives.

    Now that I think of it -thank you- this could be the only sensible reason why Coelho’s readers base consists of painfully insecure people.

    Congratulations for a well written review.

  2. Hi Alejandro! Glad you enjoyed the review. And thanks for telling me more about Paulo Coelho. I actually didn’t know that he was considered an author of chick lit. In fact I had never even heard of the guy until I was cruising around the USA Today weekly top-150 and saw that The Alchemist had been there for like 150 weeks. This was one of those books that never sold well enough in any one year to make the annual bestseller list, but had sold so well over a number of years (read: millions of copies) that it certainly qualified as a top bestseller.

    Yes, I hate assumptions about what we like based on race/gender/etc. People must always assume that you like magical realism too. What do you think that’s all about? Are you supposed to “support” Coelho’s work because you are both Hispanic? Or are people implying that his work must connect with you as a reader because you share an ethnicity? I’m sure the same thing happens with black and Asian readers (“You have to love Toni Morrison”; “You have to love Amy Tan”). Being white, I don’t get the racial nudging, but I do get a bit of the gender stuff (although most people know I’m pretty freakish so I don’t share a lot of the tastes of the American everywoman). Interestingly, it even goes the other way – people assume that because John and I are educated and love literature that we must hate everything popular, as if by virtue of a book being popular it must suck. C’mon, people, free your minds!

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