May 31, 2010

Book review: The Alchemist

Up today: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

I was the salutatorian at my high school graduation. My Dad helped me write my speech; he said it was a great opportunity to sneak a decent message into a ceremony that would otherwise be mostly "mind-numbing platitudes." He was right about the platitudes part, and I'd like to think that my speech was pretty good, at least by the standards of high school graduation.

I gave a similar message to the one Coelho continually clubs you over the head with in this book--follow your dreams. You might as well, right? A decent moral, I suppose, and one worth remembering every so often. (In my speech, I went on to add that while following your dreams is a decent idea, one should also have a backup plan as sometimes failure is inevitable. It was better than it sounds.) Unfortunately, The Alchemist is also shot through with gauzy New Age "spiritual" twaddle trying to pass itself off as profound philosophical wisdom. Example: "Yes, that's what love is. It's what makes the game become the falcon, the falcon become man, and man, in turn, the desert. It's what turns lead into gold, and makes the gold return to the earth." WTF?

Moreover, most of the secondary points are questionable. The "world's greatest lie," according to one of the characters, is "that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate." This is an odd contradiction to Coelho's idea of the "Personal Legend," what a person has always wanted to accomplish. "..when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe." In spots the book reads like a cheap self-help manual from the depths of the self-esteem movement, complete with bulleted, capitalized main points.

Really, the spiritual message, so much as it can be discerned at all, is a bunch of pernicious rubbish. The universe has no plan for the unimaginably insignificant planet Earth and cares not a whit what we do with our lives. There is no "Soul of the World," and one can't figure out how to talk to the sun by talking to one's own heart like a disembodied spirit. I've always thought this brand of whitewashed spirituality to be essentially cowardly, disguising the fact that whatever purpose, plan, or passion one has must be created, sweating and straining, by main force.

Perhaps with training in chemistry, I was turned off by the very mention of alchemy. But this was a real clunker.

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