The Secret? The Alchemist Sucks

I’ve been occupying my transit time with the reading of novels and other books that have nothing to do with stare decisis and substantive law. For the last week or so, I’ve been pulling out my copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.

This being San Francisco, at least three different people saw me reading it and decided to comment on how the book changed their lives and they now have the wisdom necessary to really feel at home with the soul of the world. I should have let that be a clue. I’ve had people recommend the book to me over the years and for whatever reason I just never got around to starting it. As a rule, I try to avoid works of literature that set out to be life-changing experiences. I find that sort of earnestness more than a little suspect.

And this is most certainly that type of book. As one of the blurbs on the back cover puts it, it attempts to have “a life-enchanting effect on millions of people” and I’m sure that even now it sits on the bookshelf of countless sensitive thinkers, absorbing the incense and patchoulii while getting pulled down every once in a while for a realignment with its message. The fact that the message is a mishmash of new age claptrap and ridiculous hokum of The Secret-like proportions only helps it along. People will fall for anything, even the patently absurd idea that the universe is obligated to grant your wishes and that desire is enough to get you the things you want. Coelho writes at great length in The Alchemist about the importance of following one’s Personal Legend (it is thus pretentiously capitalized throughout) and I can’t help but thinking that his own Personal Legend had something to do with getting millions of people to shell out their money for his book, which equates with vagueness with depth.

It’s no mean feat to deliver any sort of literary analysis of The Alchemist. The entire novel is more concerned with exploring the philosophical meanderings of Coelho’s particular brand of snake oil than in delivering any sort of plot or characterization. This is actually kind of a shame, because his spartan prose works well with the subject matter of the novel. The plot, such as it is, concerns a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago and his quest to find a a treasure at the Egyptian pyramids. He makes his way from southern Spain down to Tangier and sets out in search of his prophesied treasure. Along the way he works in a crystal shop, crosses the desert, and meets the titular sorcerer, an old man who doesn’t so much as teach young Santiago wisdom as he acknowledges the wisdom he picked up for himself by listening to the desert. We follow Santiago’s perspective and he loves to just let feel-good aphorisms slip.

“A grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it.”

“Before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that we learned along the way.”

“Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World.”

“When you are loved, you can do anything in creation…there’s no need to understand what’s happening because everything happens within you, and men can turn themselves into the wind.”

And son. And so forth. I suppose if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, then the spiritual aspects of The Alchemist but keep you interested. I just kept wanting more. The notion that Coehlo stresses the most is that everyone has a Personal Legend, or possible destiny. It’s the things we want most. Okay. But he goes on to say that if we pursue it, whatever that may be, then the universe will make sure we get it. Along the way, we must (literally) listen to out hearts and thereby enter into The Soul of the World, which I’m not totally clear on but seems to basically be the Force. Once we have done this successfully, we may be able to transform ourselves into (metaphorical) wind creatures and we will find our treasure.

It just seems like balderdash to me. I’m annoyed by the idea that we are owed anything or that “the universe” will give us things if we just want them bad enough. Santiago loses any sense of agency, his pursuit of the alchemist has more to with creating a proper allegory than in telling a good story or exploring spirituality with any kind of depth or intellectual discipline. The Alchemist is short. If the story had been more engaging and delivered the theology as an organic part of the narrative rather than serving as an extended parable I might have been sorry. As it is, I’m glad to be done with it.

23 Comments on "The Secret? The Alchemist Sucks"

  • It’s good that more people are critical of Coelho. I thought Road to Santiago was highly derivative of Lord of the Rings… I think they are forumlaic novels. Valkyries was another unsatisfyingly shallow desert/road trip. Not terrible books, but not to be over rated either…

  • Paulo Coelho is only for the soul of people who was not affected by being “mature”. He writes for the child within ourselves, and therefore it looks simple, but it is not. Try to read the book again, in a different period of your life. You will see. By the way, I discovered that the “grain of sand” reference is based on William Blake, one of the greatest visionaries of all times, and we cannot see Blake as shallow.

  • I’ve got nothing against simplicity, or spartan prose. I admire the discipline required to get one’s point across with as few storytelling tricks as possible. If I understand Greg correctly, what he finds shallow (and I agree) is the quality of the fiction. If we look at the Alchemist as a novel, it just doesn’t work. Even as a novel of ideas, there’s barely enough of an actual story to hang his quasi-mystical observations on.

  • It’s relieving to hear people talk about what this book really is: a regurgitation of all the random personal philosophies that Paulo Coelho has picked up over his mostly-intoxicated, partially-hippy life. And it’s a shame because the story of Santiago had a lot of potential, he could’ve weaved just one or two nice little themes into the story. But no, he had to take all of his accumulated pointless, random rhetoric that he has ever heard, and shove it down the throats of his readers. Personally, I found this book to be an utter waste of my time.

  • he had to take all of his accumulated pointless, random rhetoric that he has ever heard, and shove it down the throats of his readers.


    Amen, brother. Although since the reader has to seek out his work, I can’t really say that he shoves it down our throats. And obviously there is a whole sea of people who find his pseudo-philosophy useful. I’m just not one of them.

  • I completely agree with all the reviews here. Not to sound elite but this book was insulting to my intelligence. One of the worst books I’ve ever read. The book has no substance and is a bunch of cliche proverbs & philosophy.

  • Word. Which makes it all the more laughable that so many people mistake its hokum for depth, its cliches for wisdom.

  • It’s a good story. The Alchemist really tells us nothing new, but that’s no reason to be angry with it. Why are you reading books that make you so upset?

  • Well, I don’t think it was particularly good story. Or much of a story at all. But it doesn’t upset me in any real way. I’ve read bad books before and I will probably read bad books again. The problem is that I don’t always know that a book is bad until I read it. Then, I can bitch about it on the internet.

  • I’m brazilian and I must say that Coelho is really hated over here, and that his books are really bad, not in a simple way but “Twilight” bad!! Every good reader should keep themselves away from this guy and really god brazilian authors in fact: Machado de Assis, Guimaraes Rosa and Joao Gilberto Noll…

  • This is horrendous. And not the book. I’m in high school right now and my teacher had assigned us to read this book. Once I finished the book and I thought, “wow ok that’s nice to know that Santiago accomplished something and became a better person, too bad he’s a fictional character. But maybe it means that the author accomplished something in his life. good for him, but I would rather have read something that made me think and question my current beliefs and have me explore others, like the last book I read on my own time.” I would leave the book at that but my teacher made us discuss this book, write an essay, and have us construct our own “emerald tablets”. It seemed that my teacher had expected us to get some deep meaning out of this book. The book had actually seemed the opposite to me, very shallow. All of the few good lessons in the book were simply common sense. The book I read from had this analysis by the author in the front which he had explained the four obstacles you face while trying to realise your dream. It was two pages long. And I feel that it is a perfect copy of the entire book, minus all the fluff. Also, I’m writing this now instead of my essay which is due tomorrow grrrrr.

  • Ordinary, selfish pseudo-philosphy. If I’d read this at 15 it may have meant something new. Not now. It is all about the getting, nought about the giving.

  • I just have to say…
    if all you have to do all day is make fun of books on the internet, maybe a different life choice would be better for you. Paulo Coelho put lots of time into his books and I don’t think that you would appreciate it if somebody got online and dissed your books all the time…just saying. Maybe there are insights in the book that you could find with a different attitude. Try it.

  • p.s. I am talking to Deo Favente

  • Bingo!
    The Secret is The Alchemist and vice versa. And their idea is crap. I have struggled through my rage at the stupidity while trying to finish The Alchemist. Seriously, this so called book was recommended to me by my then 16 year old cousin. It was understandable at her age. I just still cannot beleive that it was written by a grown-up.

  • when I read the book I was still a teenager, maybe younger, and it comforted me a lot. I felt ok just being a kid and looking for my calling. It encouraged me to do well in high school. All I’m saying is this book is more likely to have a positive effect on your life than reading “twilight” or “harry potter”,

  • Somehow I just couldn’t understand the concept of Personal Legend ,the phrase sounded weird and selfish too. If everyone had to follow their personal legends we would all end up being a mental retard. The world is not that simple as the author makes it out to be. All he is trying to sell is that if you follow your personal legend(I hate this phrase) the universe will conspire to make it happen for you, this is nothing but bullshit ! A licence to kill for pea heads to do what they want! . I guess mohd. Atta was following his personal legend n the universe conspired to make it happen for him when he rammed that plane into the world trade centre . This book is devoid of any literary substance, a good storyline or an interesting plot.

  • I ve read this novel, and I found it interesting, u just hate it, and u want all of the readers to dispise it too… this is not good, to say this is work is good or bad, coz every author has its point of view in life and his own personal way of writing. in my opinion, I found it a wonderful story to read, coz it contains many of philosophical statements within it…and also, it had been translated to many languages around the world, because of its great value….I appreciate the writings of this author Paulo Coelho.

  • I read this book as sort of a mental break from all my law books and at the suggestion of three of my friends. I HATED it. It was such a struggle to get through it because it was just cliché after cliché. I thought I was alone in hating it because I have so many friends that love to use Coelho quotes when writing e-mails and such. It annoys the hell out of me because I read books from much better authors in elementary school. Sadly, the only redeeming quality about this book are the illustrations, but since I am not five years old, book illustrations don’t exactly encourage me to pick up a book and read it.

  • “The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream” (Tale 14 from the collection One Thousand and One Nights).

    It was written before.

  • Thank you for validating my opinion that this was a terrible, terrible book.

  • You know, everything works if you let it. It seems clear that you set out to read this work with certain preconceptions, and of course you encountered a shallow, facile and pretentious peice of drivel. You didn’t want this book to change your outlook in any way, and guess what – you won. You’re the same old cynical, directionless, sneering individual that you’ve always been. Yay for you mr winner. Now I’m a long way from being a hippie in fact I’m a radical atheist with a zero tolerance for astrology, psychics and other mumbo jumbo. However, this book did significantly improve my outlook and quality of life. I guess that makes me a loser, but sometimes it’s preferable to be a loser than a smart arse.

  • The last paragraph is exactly how I felt about this book while reading it…

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