Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: The Alchemist

I have intended to read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist ever since the summer of 2001, when a copy of it was delivered to my younger brother at my parents' house.  It was the "assigned reading" for his freshman class at Butler University, and I wanted to steal it and read it (but figured that wouldn't be a good start for his academic career).  It's been on my monstrously long "to read" list ever since then, but it got bumped to the top when my old book club read it and my friend Kristin told me that the introduction (about following your Personal Legend) made her think of my family and our move out of the corporate world and into the world of Christian camping.

When I checked The Alchemist out of the library, my husband actually got his hands on it before me (since I was distracted by a two-week flu epidemic than spread through me and all four of our kids).  He absolutely loved it and has requested that we purchase a copy so he can re-read it over the years.  The idea of following a Personal Legend really resonated with him.

I, on the other hand, really liked the basic idea but did not so much enjoy the book.  Maybe I'd had just mentally hyped it up for too long (11 years), but it just kind of fell short for me.  It is the story of Santiago (mostly referred to as "the boy" throughout the book), a simple Spanish shepherd who has a recurring dream of finding treasure.  He then meets a "king" (who is actually more like an angel or messenger of God) in a marketplace and learns that his dream is urging him on toward his own Personal Legend (or calling).  Coelho writes that "to realize one's Personal Legend is a person's only real obligation" and that "when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

The boy decides to follow his Personal Legend, so he sells his flock of sheep and sets out for Africa.  Along the way, he is robbed, works in a crystal shop, travels in a caravan across the desert, falls in love, meets an alchemist who knows the secrets of the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone, and learns to speak to his own heart.  And yes, he does find his treasure in the end.

While the story can be read on a surface level of the boy's adventures, it's also thick with philosophizing on Personal Legends and the Soul of the World.  Metaphors abound, and for a slim book, it holds a lot of ideas.

I liked the idea of a Personal Legend, but I'm clearly not as wise or as patient as the boy, because when I read the ending, I was like, "Seriously?  I'd be so pissed if that was me!"  So obviously I am not as deep as the author (or my husband, or all my other friends who enjoyed it).  I was also put off by some of the religious talk, which seemed, in turns, both rather Transcendental and rather New Age, while vaguely referencing many Christian stories.

So, in short, I didn't love it, but I am glad that I read it, and it was a good way to round out 2012 and welcome in the New Year, with thoughts of Personal Legends and what I'm meant or called to do in this life.

As a side note--my library had The Alchemist shelved in the Young Adult section.  I presume this is because the hero starts the story as a teenager, and because Coelho explains that we dream more when we are young (and tend to lose those dreams and hopes as we grow older).  However, I would in no way limit its reading to teens, and in fact think that adults would both enjoy and benefit from it more than the younger set.

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