The Alchemist – A Novel With a Soul

Some thoughts on writing, reading and children's stories

A novel that can be summed up in three words – “don’t give up” – is not a good novel.   

The Alchemist is a terrible piece of literature. It is crude and simple-minded. The dialogue is stiff and mechanical; the prose mushy, like a dead fish on my page. Worst of all, I felt I was being preached down to the entire time.

Indeed, I was disgusted upon finishing it. How, I thought, does such a rudimentary book ascend into the upper echelons of praise, hailed as a masterpiece by literary giants?

In retrospect, I see my mistake: The Alchemist should not be read as a grand work of literature or philosophy. Because really it’s one long parable, or a series of parables, more akin to The Little Prince than The Great Gatsby. It is not a traditional novel – which is built around plot and characters, layered and intertwined, with ideas woven in – so we cannot judge it by traditional criteria.

This book must be read as one would read a Parable of Jesus; expect a simple story and characters, existing only to carry a strong central message.

In light of this, I think I can forgive the one-dimensional characters, poor plot and preachy prose (well, perhaps not the last one). Because the idea, the soulful sentiment, is what matters in a work like this.

However, upon review, I still found The Alchemist dull. The words on the page were dead. Never did they coalesce into emotion, animated by the literary spark.

I blame this, in part, on poor writing. But more importantly, this is a book written for a specific audience – the despondent dreamers. Having not encountered the ‘real world’, my dreams are still very much intact, swaddled in and nurtured by my childlike (and perhaps childish) naivety.

To those who have lost their way, or given up, a simple parable with a simple, powerful message might be all they need to reclaim their dream. I admit, this is a book that may speak powerfully to such a reader. Because, above all, this is a book with a soul.

This ‘soul’ is what drew me to Paulo Coelho’s work. I started reading The Alchemist after listening to his interview with Tim Ferriss. I was impressed (as some of you may know from my Monthly Recap) by his sincere description of the writing process, as the individual soul reaching out and touching the Soul of The World. He spoke with rustic elegance and sagacity, but above all, love and sincerity.

Coelho’s words are sincere, proceeding directly from a loving heart. This is what gives the work such depth and weight.

The reader who approaches the book expecting a literary masterpiece, full of profound and original ideas, will inevitably be dissapointed, as I was.   

But the reader who approaches this work with an aching heart and sincere yearning, will, I truly believe, find great value.

Because sometimes the simplest books are best. Sometimes a single word can change a life. Sometimes all we need is a children’s story.  

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Brian Scoles
Brian Scoles
9 months ago

You bring to mind