Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like. This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag). Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me. Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.
Review of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
A friend recommended this book to me and gave me a copy, so I felt obligated to read it. The reference on the front cover to the book’s being an “international bestselling phenomenon” and the claim, on the back cover, that it has changed “the lives of its readers forever” should have forewarned me. I cannot understand why people would find this quasi-mystical self-help stuff uplifting and inspiring; if the vacuous platitudes it contains qualify as spiritual nourishment, the world is in deep trouble.
Santiago, a young Andalusian shepherd, has a recurring dream; as a result, he sets out to find a treasure near the Egyptian pyramids. During his quest, he encounters a number of people who help him realize supposedly profound truths about life. That’s it; that’s the plot, and it’s a very contrived one in that all events are there solely to preach some trite adage.
What is supposedly wisdom for the ages is overly simplistic clichés: “’It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary’” (15); “All things are one” (22); “people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises” (27); it is important “to cleanse our minds of negative thoughts” (46); “’the earth is alive . . . and it has a soul’” (79); “’concentrate always on the present’” (85); there is “a twin soul for every person in the world” (93); “’wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure’” (128); “’listen to what [your heart] has to say’” (129); “’Love is the force that transforms’” (150).
To ensure that the reader gets the message, there is endless repetition. “’Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure’” (115 – 116) is remarkably similar to “’Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure’” (128). “’If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. . . . life is the moment we’re living right now’” (85) sounds like “’The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve the present, what comes later will also be better’” (103). To also help readers who might have difficulty grasping the most significant ideas, the author has included ample capitalization: Personal Legend, Soul of the World, Language of the World.
My impression is that the book is intended to make people feel good. If they listen to their hearts and summon the courage to follow their dreams, they will accomplish their dream: “’The world’s greatest lie . . . [is] that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate’” (18) and “’There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure’” (141). And then there’s the ultimate feel-goodism: “’No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world’” (158 – 159).
Certainly there is no new wisdom in the book. It might be useful as a self-help book for young people, but any semi-intelligent adult who has given some thought to life and the world will not learn anything new. What is disturbing is that the book advocates a type of selfishness: “’To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation’” (22). Any other responsibilities can be cast aside. Of course, if you are a woman, you don’t have dreams to follow. For Fatima, Santiago’s love interest, her only obligation is to wait patiently while her man pursues his dream because, as Santiago is told, “’she already has her treasure: it’s you’” (118)! There is also one great irony that seems to have been overlooked by the author and readers: Santiago claims he “’wasn’t able to learn anything from [books]’” and is told, “’There is only one way to learn . . . It’s through action’” (125).
The book is written in a fable style: the sentences are short, and the protagonist is simply called “the boy.” And like in an Aesop’s fable, everything is obvious. But, unlike those fables, this book is not entertaining, and to say that its didactic tone is irritating would be an understatement. Its one saving grace is that it is mercifully short. Alchemy it does not possess.