Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Alchemist, 25th Anniversary Edition: A Fable about Following Your Dreams

Title:  The Alchemist, 25th Anniversary Edition:  A Fable about Following Your Dreams
Author:  Paulo Coelho
Publication Information:  HarperOne, HarperCollins Publishers. 1988. 179 pages.
ISBN:  0062315005 / 978-0062315007

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. This book also became this month's selection for my local book club as none of us had read it.

Favorite Quote:  "Any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person's hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of the birds ... whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience at the moment. Actually, it wasn't that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World."

The Alchemist was originally written over twenty five years ago in Portuguese. In a 2009 interview, Paulo Coelho said he wrote the book in only two weeks because "the book was already written in my soul". The original publication run through a small Brazilian publisher was for 900 copies. It did not sell well, and the publisher declined to do a reprint. Subsequently, Paulo Coelho found a larger publishing house, and The Alchemist was reprinted with the issuance of his next book Brida. The book did much better, becoming a Brazilian bestseller.

Since that time, the book has sold over 65 million copies and been translated into over 50 languages. In fact, it holds the Guinness World Record for being the most translated book by a living author. As of this week, it has hit 308 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list!

An impressive resume for a book! So, what is this book actually about? On its surface, it is the story of the shepherd boy Santiago, who hungers for travel and goes on a quest to seek treasure. Its symbolic meaning is a lesson of spirituality and of the pursuit of your dreams. 

This book refers to itself as a fable. The dictionary defines a fable as a short tale to teach a moral lesson, often with animals or inanimate objects as characters. Related forms of literature include an allegory (a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one) and a parable (a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, often used in a religious context). This book does convey one central lesson; however, it does so with human characteristics and in the form of a almost 200 page book.

Santiago begins his journey with a dream. Based upon that dream, he sells his flock of sheep and sets off on a journey to seek his treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. Along the way, he encounters obstacles- theft, delays, and war. He perseveres. Along the way, he also receives help and guidance - sometimes directly and sometimes disguised as tasks. He learns to listen, observe, and be present in every experience. He also meets many people who bring something to his journey:

  • The merchant's daughter who is memory for Santiago - showing that we all hold on varied dreams until we identify our true destiny.
  • The gypsy woman who helps interpret Santiago's dream and asks for future payment should he find his treasure - testing Santiago's integrity and his wisdom in relying on advice freely given.
  • The king who demands immediate payment for showing Santiago the way - questioning whether Santiago's commitment to his goal is strong enough for him to part with immediate wealth in search of greater treasure.
  • The crystal merchant who convinces himself that having a dream is more important than achieving it - making Santiago question his own desire to purse his dreams.
  • The Englishman who is so focused on the end result that he loses sight of the process - teaching Santiago to remain observant and present in the journey not just the goal.
  • The young woman Fatima who professes her love for Santiago - forcing Santiago to make a choice to continue his journey even as a possibly wonderful life beckons if a different choice is made.
  • The alchemist who listens to the "Language of the World" and possesses the power of the Elixir of Life and the Philosophers Stone - serving as a mentor to Santiago.
"When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true." This refrains repeats consistently throughout the book. That "something" is the true pursuit of what the book calls the "personal legend" or your destiny. Santiago's leads him from his life as a shepherd across the desert to the pyramids of Egypt.


That question is at the heart of what this book will mean to a reader. Critics over the years have said that the story is too simplistic. It is too contrived. It is quasi-religious ramblings. It is a self-help book disguised as fiction.

All of that may be true, but the book touches my heart. I knew going in that it was a fable before I read it, but that was all I knew. So, I expected the simple nature of the story. I sat down with the book and finished it a day later. I am now re-reading it more slowly to look even further behind the words at the ideas and the lessons.

Why does the book appeal to me? It has been on my reading list for years, but I have never gotten to it. I am so glad that I finally did. Perhaps, now the time is right for me to appreciate this book.

It could be that I am in pursuit of my own dream and appreciate the reinforcement and the encouragement. It could be that I am a parent teaching children to believe that anything is possible and that dreams are achievable. It could be that I am learning to practice the idea of being present in any given moment without regrets of the past or worries about the future; that lesson is central to Santiago's success. It could be that I appreciate the focus on the spirituality that unites us rather than any given religious tradition. It could be I treasure the close connection of the events and characters to the natural world. "You don't have to understand the desert: all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation."

For all those reasons and probably more, I am so glad that I finally read this book and look forward to re-reading it many times in the years to come.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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