Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is there to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? There are over a million ratings of this story already and all the top English language reviews are negative. These critics despise the message of The Alchemist calling it a dangerous message that justifies irrational behavior. Those who praise the book are those who embrace the message fully, believing that everyone has a personal legend and that all languages can be united if one listens with the heart.

Despite my 5/5 rating, I’m going to take a more moderate interpretation when it comes to the message of The Alchemist. It’s not a self help book. Self help books are nonfiction and give practical concrete measures for personal improvement (e.g. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, or Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment). The Alchemist is a modern fable closer to The Little Prince. Its story is meant to convey a lesson but only in the most general of terms. How one applies that lesson to one’s personal life is up to the individual. I don’t think the message of The Alchemist is quite as radical as many reviewers perceive it. It calls for pursuit of personal goals, but only after understanding those goals intimately. It calls for sacrifice of self, but only those things which distract us from our goals in life. It’s not telling us to follow the path of Santiago; it’s telling us to meditate on the lessons that he learned on his journey.

What is rarely talked about is the story itself and the characters of Coelho’s novel. Most critics seem so caught up in the book’s message that they overlook that The Alchemist is a masterfully crafted tale with well crafted characters in a timeless setting. The universality of the story allows for its message to be communicated across many cultures, but it also fundamentally entertains with suspense, drama, and conflicts for the characters to overcome. It’s one of the most basic storytelling tropes, a man goes on a journey, but told in a way that manages to be relatable yet not generic. Taking everything else away, The Alchemist is an entertaining and thought provoking read, and although not everyone will accept its message, it offers an interesting view of the world and the meaning of human life.

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