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The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

August 6, 2009

In January I experienced a “Quarter-Century Crisis.” I was set to turn 25 and doubting everything about my life: I didn’t have a job in my chosen field (education), I was having a hard time paying the bills, and was generally self-pitying.

My cooperating teacher (I taught his 9th grade class while I was student teaching) and now friend recommended I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho—something about fulfilling one’s destiny. Well, it is now August, and I have finished reading it. Why wait so long? I started it six months after the recommendation!

Funny thing: life ensued. I had many good conversations, which led me to cease my pity party (which was a bummer, because everyone loves parties!) and focus on what I had that was good. I had many supportive friends and my steady college job at the credit union back. Plus, I got a call in February to take a month-long substitute teaching job at a middle school (only thing left to do was sell my too-high-of-a-payment-for-a-sub-teacher car), so I didn’t have time (…nor desire) to read The Alchemist.

Well, I finally read it. The novel follows a shepherd boy, who is being groomed for something great by his poor parents. However, he doesn’t want to pursue a life in the priesthood, and opts to travel. While wandering the countryside with his sheep, he dreams of a treasure, near the Pyramids in Egypt. We follow Santiago as he pursues his treasure, meeting a great King, the love of his life, an alchemist and war. It was a beautiful story, as all the reviews say—but, to this jaded quarter-centenarian, too heavy-handed. While reading, I underlined scores of proverbs and aphorisms and words of advice, ultimately being told that to achieve my destiny, I need to listen to my heart and not fear failure: that the universe will conspire to help me fulfill my dreams.

There are many beautiful, concise statements in the novel that I could slap on photos of a golden pyramid, a soaring falcon, a galloping steed, or a hidden oasis and market as inspirational posters (I’ll have to do that when I have a regular teaching job). They aren’t terribly cheesy, but definitely motivational, such as “…there is a force that wants you to realize your destiny” (30) and “when you really want something, the universe always conspires in your favor” (38).

When I subbed for said friend in April or so, I spent a few days teaching out of the book, and it sparked some great discussion and musing. Reading it alone, though, it felt like I was drowning in Chicken Soup for the Soul. I alternated between feeling that there was a beautiful message in the book that we don’t hear enough of (people try to dissuade you from your dreams because they’re too afraid to chase their own) and wanting to stow it on my shelf next to Dianetics and the Bible (how many times can you handle hearing God/Allah will help you achieve your dream?).

Aside from the ham-handed repetition of Disneyesque advice, there is a lot to like about this book. It was first published in 1988, thus making it a truly modern fable. It has also been translated into approximately 23,000,000 languages (sadly, Klingon is not one of them).

This book is a phenomenon, and for that, I recommend reading it (well, that’s a slippery slope for recommendations. Would I ever suggest The DaVinci Code because it’s a phenomenon? NO).
It is written in simple, beautiful prose, and will make you think about your life. For that, I recommend reading it. Am I doing what I love? Am I chasing my dream? What’s preventing me from doing so?

Oh, yeah: I, unlike The Boy, have no idea what my dream is. I don’t know what to chase. But, for the moment, I’m content to make the most out of what I have.
I leave you with some beautiful words: “…it’s not love to be static like the desert, nor is it love to roam the world like the wind. And it’s not love to see everything from a distance… Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World… when we love, we always strive to become better than we are” (158).


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