Books: The Alchemist

A friend in Toastmasters loaned me this book, saying he thought I would like it based on what I had said about another book I had enjoyed. I think the previously mentioned book was probably Banner in the Sky, which I spoke about in Table Topics in response to a question about my favorite book.

There are so many books I like that I would have trouble calling any a favorite, but with Table Topics you don’t have much time to think about an answer. The idea is to get up and speak about something with no preparation, and what matters is less whether you give the “best” answer to the question than how well you present your ideas.

When I was growing up, Banner in the Sky was certainly one of my favorite books. I enjoyed the vicarious adventure (I liked hiking and climbed Mount Washington and Mount Katahdin with my father, but I did not ever plan to attempt any of the Alps), and I appreciated how the boy in the story had to learn certain character qualities.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is very different from Banner in the Sky, and for a while I couldn’t even figure out which book I had mentioned that had given my friend the idea I would like The Alchemist. Both books are about young men pursuing their dreams and encountering obstacles along the way, but that’s about the extent of the similarity.

The Alchemist is a fable, using the bare bones of a story to teach moral lessons. I don’t necessarily dislike fables, but I think they are better as short stories rather than being stretched to book length.

One of the books I have seen it compared to is Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I admit I did appreciate as a teenager. Perhaps as a teenager I would have appreciated this one more.

The lessons of The Alchemist are straightforward: follow your dreams, listen to your heart, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I don’t have two much trouble with the first two of those ideas as long as they don’t get in the way of other important teachings such as loving one’s neighbor. But the bit about the universe conspires to help you is part of the “New-Age-y-ness” of the book that annoys me.

There are certainly times when events seem to be helping us along. We may call them coincidences or we may see in them the hand of divine Providence. But there are also times when events seem to conspire against us. Again, we may see them as coincidences or as trials sent from God.

Either way, I don’t think it is meaningful to speak of the “universe” either helping me or working against me. God made the universe but He is not the same as the universe. I believe God helps me, and He uses what He has made (including people), but that is different from saying the “universe” helps me.

Apparently there’s no coincidence in seeing New Age ideas in a book with a title like The Alchemist. They apparently have a lot in common. And like most spiritual teachings, there is some truth to be found in them. But there are other important truths missing.

So I won’t be recommending The Alchemist to anyone, either for its teachings or its writing, both of which leave a good deal to be desired.

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