Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, April 12, 2010

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho

I had alternately heard that this book was amazing and that it was boring. I was relieved when I received it and saw that it's not especially thick (because the only thing worse than a boring book is a really, really thick boring book).

I'm happy to report I didn't find it boring, anyway. It's a simple story, told in the manner of a fairytale or morality tale. The writing is not adorned with much detail. It doesn't seem to be lacking due to its simplicity; rather, the story has buoyancy and flow as a result. What is written seems to skim across the surface, suggesting great depths beneath, and the author does throw out profound-sounding statements with regularity. The only problem is, nearly every time I catch one of these nuggets and examine it, I find I disagree.

For example, Coelho writes, "When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too." I've never thought of myself as a pessimist--I'm too happy for that!--but maybe I read this with a great big dose of realism. I agree that "bettering yourself" is an admirable pursuit which should not be abandoned just because your sphere of influence may not reach farther than yourself. However, life just doesn't work out that way. Sure, some things around you will become better--but others will become worse. I'm smart enough to know that no matter how hard we try, no matter how much better I become, we will never succeed in creating a utopia.

Following what Coelho terms your "Personal Legend," which could be defined as realizing your destiny, is supposedly "a person's only real obligation." I think this is oversimplified. Everyone has many real obligations (to follow laws, to pay your bills, to feed and clothe your children and raise them to the best of your ability). Unless everyone's Personal Legend is all-encompassing, weighty, and (for the most part) very similar to everyone else's, following it is certainly not anyone's "only real obligation." I guess I could have allowed it to be "a person's most important obligation." I do like the idea of having a Personal Legend, or, as Coelho puts it in the Introduction, a "personal calling." He explains this as "God's blessing . . . the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend." In my mind, Coelho is talking about passion. Everyone should be passionate about something(s) in their life.

I also disagreed with Coelho's claim that "when you want something [in other words, when you are following your Personal Legend], all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." Huh? This makes it sound as if your truest desire will be handed to you on a silver platter, or at the very least, that reaching it will be an easy task. Fortunately, this idea was given a more realistic spin later in the book when the shepherd learns that "before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way," referring to the trials and tribulations that I would expect one to surmount in trying to attain a goal.

I don't want to give you the idea that I took issue with everything in the book. Here's one of the quotes that I agreed with: "Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own." Once again that may not work as a blanket statement, but (without mentioning any names) I sure know at least one person who is that way. *cough mysisterinlaw cough* AHEM. Excuse me. I also appreciated the statement that "when each day is the same as the next, it's because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises."

Even though I didn't agree with all the Deep Thoughts, I loved giving them consideration. I think it's rare to find a book with an engaging story that simultaneously induces me to think beyond the plot.


LuAnn said...

I read this book a couple years ago and wasn't really that impressed with it. Like you, I had also heard both good and bad, with the good coming out ahead.

Rachel said...

I have heard a lot about this book... it keeps popping up everywhere.. hmmm may be time to add it to my TBR list.

ashmitasaha said...

I am addicted to Paulo Coelho too. I read his other novel: Eleven minutes. Attempted a review of it here - tell me what you think..

Kathy said...

Thanks for sharing that link, Ashmita. I have not read Eleven Minutes, but I found it interesting (though I suppose not surprising) that Coelho does the same thing in both books--his characters make statements that sound like profound truth, but upon further examination I see what appears to be truth may be only partially true, or isn't universally true, or is even false. Have you read any of Coelho's other books? I haven't, but I wonder if this extends to all of his writing.