Book review – The Alchemist

I had heard about this book for a while, my sister had read it and a number of friends had read it, but for some reason, I wasn’t drawn to reading it until the start of this year. It is insanely popular with more than 65 million books being sold worldwide and it has been translated into over 50 languages.

I think often you have to be ready to read a book to really hear what it has to say and this was how I felt about The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Alchemist is a modern fable centred around the character of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who wants to travel and see more of the world. The name Santiago is a Spanish name that derives from the Hebrew name Jacob (Ya’akov) via “Sant Iago”, “Sant Yago”, “Santo Iago”, or “Santo Yago”, first used to denote Saint James the Great, the brother of John the Apostle. {source).

Santiago has a reoccurring dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. He seeks out a gypsy fortune teller to decipher the dream, who says that it means he will find a treasure when he goes to the pyramids in Egypt. Soon after that he meets an old man called Melchizedek, who refers to himself as King of Salem. He also says that Santiago should go the pyramids to find his treasure, but takes it one step further and explains that this journey to find his treasure is his personal legend. The remainder of the story follows Santiago as he endeavours to fulfil his personal legend.

There is something very comforting about the way a fable unfolds. It is a medium we grow up with as a child and we know the story is there to tell us something important, to tell us something about the way we should live our lives. So while reading The Alchemist, I was looking for these signposts and there were many.

In fact The Alchemist does have its critics, with some saying it is simply a self help book disguised as a fable. I however loved it. I loved the messages and it made me think about the long term trajectory of my life and what I wanted from it. Here are some of the notes I took while reading, that have stuck with me this year:

  • we all have the potential to realise our personal legends
  • so much depends upon how you think about yourself – are you a victim of a thief or and adventurer looking for treasure
  • there is a language of enthusiasm – of things accomplished with love and purpose and as part of a search of something believed in and desired
  • satisfaction comes from living with intention and purpose
  • we already know what we need to know, sometimes we just need to be pointed in the right direction
  • where your heart is, there you will find your treasure
  • what holds you back from pursuing your personal legend is fear
  • you learn through action

Further reading inspired by The Alchemist

After reading The Alchemist, I then went on to read The Pilgrimage which Coelho wrote before The Alchemist and I really loved this too.

The story recounts his quest across Spain along the road of San Tiago, which pilgrims have travelled for hundreds of years, known as the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage is to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.

At the start of the story, Coelho’s failed his initiation into the order Regnus Agnus Mundi (RAM) and to complete his initiation he must embark on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago to find the sword so he can be fully initiated into the RAM. Like Santiago in The Alchemist, Coelho has struggles, hardships and trouble making sense of it all, but at the end has learnt much about life, how to live it and what is important.

After reading The Pilgrimage, I have added walking the Camino de Santiago to my list of must do activities in my lifetime!

I then went on to read Rebirth by Kamal Ravikant, a fable which amongst other themes is also about following your heart like The Alchemist. This book shares the journey of someone else walking the Camino de Santiago and the impact it has on their life. While it is a fable, it is also partly based on the personal experience of Kamal Ravikant who:

After the death of his estranged father, Amit takes his parent’s ashes to the Ganges to fulfill a deathbed promise. Instead of returning home, he wanders, his pain and grief leaving him confused about his future. Almost broke, unsure about his direction in life, and running from memories, he is led by fate to the Camino de Santiago, an ancient 550-mile pilgrimage route across northern Spain.

This is a much more modern take on the pilgrimage, compared to Coelho’s but it still has many great points for us to ponder.

What have I done since reading these books?

I have reread The Alchemist over the year and I am working on figuring out what my own personal legend is, what I refer to now as my life purpose. I have undertaken a number of exercises to help me reflect on the many aspects of my life and what it is I really want from it.

I have created a life purpose statement and I have started testing things to see where they will lead. I will use this knowledge to plan for the new year and explore these ideas further. I have found it both confronting and exciting to undertake this process which was kick started by reading The Alchemist. I highly recommend reading The Alchemist to kick start the process for you too!

Have you read The Alchemist? Did you love it or hate it?

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