Since 2014, the Whitney Book Bistro discusses a literature classic in January[i]. As you can see in the notes, most of our selections have been by British or American authors, because we are limited by the availability of books. We are fortunate that The Library District put together a book club kit for The Alchemist. Diverse selections are essential for us to build a strong community with shared experiences through books.
Paulo Coelho wrote O Alquimista in two weeks in 1987.[ii] The first US printing was in 1993 and The Alchemist “eventually became one of the best-selling Brazilian novels ever published, and today it is one of the world’s most widely translated books.”[iii] According to PBS’s 2018 Great American Read, “the book spent more than six years on The New York Times Best Seller’s list.”[iv]
I opened the discussion by reminding us of The Alchemist’s popularity and the importance of everyone’s opinion. I struggled to enjoy this book, and I was particularly concerned that I would allow that opinion to dominate – but I also wanted very much to be persuaded to feel more favorably. Differences often make the best discussions and are the most informative for all of us, perhaps even more so when there is only one dissenting opinion. I read aloud a teacher’s justification that The Alchemist is a diverse and optimistic perspective in contrast to the “pessimistic nature of the body of works widely available and taught at the sophomore level.”[v]
Since no one spoke up quickly to be our first responder, I read aloud an email response from one of our remote readers. I will post her full text in the replies. She found the story initially to be “full of cheap platitudes and easy mystical pseudo-wisdom,” but ultimately “this is a worthwhile read, especially for those who have not yet been exposed to these ideas.” A couple of members were nodding as I read this response. One said that he found it to be an insipid self-help book with lame platitudes, reminding him of The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino (1968). Another said that she felt that at first, but as she read on, she really liked it! Still another member reminded us that this book was written over 30 years ago.
A library youth department staff member liked the book enough to attend. She had written one of the core principles on our Teen Zone board: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” (pg. 23). She believes this idea is important because untapped talent needs to be encouraged. You don’t have to settle. Another staff member attended. They read it in high school in 2017 and their class focused on the idea that you do not need to settle for the easily achievable. Another member shared that she likes knowing that high schoolers are reading this. In high school, she had no idea what she wanted to do but, as others also agreed, too often we are told to focus on the money, on being able to support ourselves, to suppress our dreams.
One of us then wanted to know how many of us are doing now what we wanted to do in high school. Several people raised their hands. I noticed primarily our young people’s assistant and thoughtlessly commented that she was too young! She graciously accepted this challenge and said that, for her, this was an auspicious moment to read this book at this point in her life. She particularly liked the part in the book when Santiago is discussing with the Sun and the Wind and finding his answers in the quiet, listening. Another member shared that he had wanted to travel the world and considered becoming a pilot. What he really wanted was to be a flight attendant, something not available to men at the time. Is it really too late for him? His nephew is now following this dream. Many of us moved on from disappointments, sometimes for the better. One member had given up a dream to become a fashion designer because a girl in her school received all the scholarships. She later learned that girl had dropped out! And what about “Maktub” or destiny? Do we really have a choice?
Which brought us to a discussion of The Alchemist and magical realism. I read aloud one definition, but I had found several slightly different ones online and I encourage us all to look into it further. Basically, it is a primarily realistic world with elements of magic that help to highlight important, contrasting ideas. This term is most notably associated with Latin-American fiction, such as works by Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and many others.[vi] One of us pointed out that movies, just by the fact that they are not real, are magical realism!
We discussed banned books, sexism, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, use of alcohol (or marijuana) privately versus publicly, late night tv shows and censorship, and the origin of the phrase “son of a gun.” We also mentioned how you never want to meet your hero, and a visit to the Grand Canyon may be underwhelming.
As always, the discussion was varied and went in ways I couldn’t have imagined and have not fully covered here. Although I did not like many parts of The Alchemist, I continue to see its references in the world around me and I appreciate more than ever the importance of looking deeply into my opinions and accepting lessons and happy endings where I can find them.
Other works discussed:
- Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff
- Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022) Film, based on a series of books by Paul Gallico (2010)
- One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez
- “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream” from Tales of 1001 Nights or 1001 Arabian Nights
[i] To Kill a Mockingbird, Our Town, War of the Worlds, The Secret Garden, My Antonia, Puddinhead Wilson, Frankenstein, and we actually had 24 people attend for our first classic pick, Pride and Prejudice.
[ii] Goodyear, D. (2009). The Magus: The Astonishing Appeal of Paulo Coelho. In J. W. Hunter (Ed.), Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 258). Gale. (Reprinted from New Yorker, 2007, May 7, 83, 38) https://link-gale-com.lvccld.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/ZBESIJ386907721/LCO?u=lvccld_main&sid=bookmark-LCO&xid=7dce5fcd
[iii] Explanation of: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. (2010). In LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Gale. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/LTF4000000495CE/LITF?u=lvccld_main&sid=bookmark-LITF&xid=bcf1ac51
[iv] The Alchemist was listed as #70 of America’s most loved books. “THE GREAT AMERICAN READ was an eight-part series that explored and celebrated the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey)*.” https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/home/
[v]Lesson plan provided online for a unit written by Gene Brunak with the Portland Public School system.