The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho — Follow Your Personal Legend

I’m smack in the middle of a personal challenge to read at least one book every week. Because of school and work, I’m currently 13 books behind and playing catch-up. The erudition section of this blog is my attempt to chronicle my challenge and galvanize a lifetime of curiosity and learning. If you have read any of these books before, or happen to pick one up and find it interesting, I’d love to hear your thoughts too.


The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

For a long time I didn’t read fiction, even after some of my favorite authors and idols insisted that it helped them become better writers. I always believed that, aside from a few superstar novels, fiction couldn’t teach me anything I couldn’t learn from real-life.

I now see that as an extremely myopic view of fiction. When you read a book, you shouldn’t just read the book. Look deeper and try and get inside the author’s head. Why would she phrase a sentence this way, or why would he reveal such-and-such about this character at this point in the book? You don’t learn just from the words that are written on the page, but from which words are written, the way they are written, and the structure and story of the book in whole.

That said, The Alchemist is… okay. My first criticism is that the story contained too much spiritual crap about God and the Universal Language and whatnot. I’m not buying. At some points in the story the main character, Santiago, a young shepherd in Spain, looks at past events and arrives at the conclusion that God’s plan is for him to leave his family and his sheep to search for buried treasure. This is the same fallacious thinking and appeal to God that leads people to a false sense of security, creates narcissism, and gives kings the “right” to do whatever they please.

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”
—Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)

I don’t understand why Santiago must appeal to God’s will. Why can’t it just be his will? In any case, the entire plot revolves around Santiago’s pursuit of his “Personal Legend” to find buried treasure in the Egyptian Pyramids. This part I like. A Personal Legend sounds much like a personal mythology, that is, as I interpret it, a strong sense of self that guides you in your daily decisions and long-term plan of life. This sense of self does include your past experiences, but it avoids the narrative fallacy because never do you derive a conclusion solely based on past experiences. Rather, a personal mythology serves to accentuate a person’s individual will with their unique and subjective thinking.

I don’t know much about philosophy and theology, but a personal mythology or Personal Legend seems to fill in all the holes that atheism leaves open, such as how to derive meaning in our life without a God (ie. create meaning yourself, from your own life). It also seems to fit in with what I know about Zen Buddhism.

I think my favorite part about The Alchemist is the style in which Coelho wrote. I haven’t read any of his other work, but The Alchemist was very simple and yet contemplative. Despite being translated from Portuguese, his language is direct and to the point. Coelho seems to only tell us details about the characters that are relevant to his story and the moral of the book. Sometimes a year would go by in just a few pages. Other times a moment would require many lines of description.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
—Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)

His prose is good, too. I always dislike it when authors use obvious clichés or annoying alliteration. Coelho’s writing is so simple and clean that it was like the words weren’t even there, just the story. You might say that the writing shows you the story in your mind’s eye, instead of telling you the story with words, if that makes sense.

Final Rating: 3/5 stars

My final takeaway from The Alchemist is the title of this post: “Follow Your Personal Legend.” Sometimes it takes another person, an idol or an alchemist, to give us a shove, but in the end it’s up to us think for ourselves and connect the dots of our life. It won’t be easy, and like Santiago we may lose a couple fortunes, but at least we could live with ourselves in the end.

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