Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Books and Bagels – March 2019

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Books and Bagels Book Discussion Group on The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Rating:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group rated the book between a 3.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 3.79.

Rationale for Selection:
“The Alchemist has become a modern classic, selling millions of copies around the world and transforming the lives of countless readers across generations. Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece tells the mystical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure. His quest will lead him to riches far different—and far more satisfying—than he ever imagined. Santiago’s journey teaches us about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, of recognizing opportunity and learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, most importantly, to follow our dreams.”

“Paulo Coelho, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, is one of the bestselling and most influential authors in the world. His books have sold more than 165 million copies worldwide, have been released in 170 countries, and been translated into 80 languages.”

“Originally written in Portuguese, The Alchemist holds the record as the most translated book by a living author, published in 80 languages including Xhosa, Vietnamese, Hebrew, and Persian.”

“The book spent more than six years on the New York Times bestseller list.”

“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)” and The Alchemist was on this list.

Last year, members voted for which novel they would like to read in March. They could choose The Woman in the Window or The Alchemist.  The Alchemist was the overwhelming winner for Books and Bagels using an anonymous paper ballot.

Review:
The discussion was fantastic! Members stayed longer to continue to discuss their thoughts on The Alchemist.  Members had various points of view and different interpretations about the novel. Both the facilitator and one member, unbeknownst to each other, likened the discussion to the poem, The Blind Men and The Elephant:

I.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant 
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation 
Might satisfy his mind.

II.
The First approached the Elephant, 
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, 
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant 
Is very like a wall!”

III.
The Second, feeling of the tusk, 
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? 
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant 
Is very like a spear!”

IV.
The Third approached the animal, 
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, 
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a snake!”

V.
The Fourth reached out his eager hand, 
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like 
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant 
Is very like a tree!”

VI.
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, 
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; 
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant 
Is very like a fan!”

VII.
The Sixth no sooner had begun 
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail 
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a rope!”

VIII.
And so these men of Indostan 
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion 
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, 
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.
So, oft in theologic wars 
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance 
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Needless to say, we all got something very different out of the novel.  Three members loved The Bible references and two of these members plan to recommend The Alchemist to their bible study groups.  One member felt it was an interesting religious self-help book.  One member thought it was a deeply philosophical book. One member thought it was a fairy story and another member thought it was a fairy tale.  Many members felt it was a parable or fable about finding your personal destiny with which the universe conspires to help. A few members thought it addressed metaphysical principles, New Age principles, and Western esotericism.  One member thought the book had inspiring principles which would be better served by a younger reading audience. One member is still waiting to be inspired. One member felt that many other self-help books do a much better job addressing the principles covered in the book.  One member, just didn’t get it. One member enjoyed the book, but was disappointed in the ending.
(Spoiler Alert!) She was surprised that Santiago found real gold at the end; she felt that the true treasure obtained was love and enthusiasm for living. The facilitator told the group that this novel is beloved in many different countries by a wide variety of religious beliefs—we later discussed why this might be the case.

Discussion Highlights:

  • Most members in the discussion group read the 25th Anniversary edition of The Alchemist.  The facilitator read the 20th Anniversary edition which included A Reader’s Guide, a Map of Santiago’s Journey, and An Interview with Paulo Coelho. The facilitator used the questions in A Reader’s Guide to conduct the discussion and highly recommends the 20th Anniversary edition for book facilitation purposes. The discussion highlights revolved around the questions presented in the 20th Anniversary edition.
  • The group discussed the Prologue and the alternative story of Narcissus which gives the reader clues as to the themes and relationships the reader should watch for in the Santiago story.  The group agreed that there is an element of narcissism in the pursuit of one’s Personal Legend.
  • We discussed the natural elements in the story and connections we as humans have with nature.  We talked about the healing properties of nature. We discussed Stanford University’s mindfulness studies and how nature and mindfulness can be used to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • We discussed the one-tenth payment asked for by the gypsy woman and the old man.  We discussed the difference between the payments and the meaning of the up-front payment.  We discussed the sacrifices that Santiago makes in order to pursue his dream, additionally, we talked about how those sacrifices can teach us other skills and attributes along the way.  As we move through barriers and dangers we acquire wonderful traits (great treasures) such as determination, courage, confidence, and unconditional love.
  • We discussed the old man’s premise that people believe “the world’s greatest lie—that we all lose control of our own lives and must then be controlled by fate.”  We talked about how people in pursuit of their dreams are so often knocked down that they come to believe life is all luck and fate; they give up control and stop trying to pursue their destiny.  Santiago throughout the story is constantly asked to give up things he has acquired to pursue his destiny. At one point, Santiago has the choice of having a comfortable life with Fatima and being an honored counselor at the oasis or continuing to pursue his dream.  The Alchemist assists him by telling him what would happen to him four years down the road if he chooses this comfortable path. The Alchemist assures him that “true love” (unconditional love) will wait as he pursues his dream. When Santiago finally chooses to pursue his destiny “he immediately felt peace in his heart.” (p. 121)
  • The group discussed who they thought the old man, Melchizedek, and the Alchemist were and if they were the same being.  We agreed that they were symbolic of strangers/mysterious people who enter our lives and offer us help and guidance. As we pursue our quest, we are all assisted by strangers on our journey.
  • Paulo Coelho once said “alchemy is all about pursuing our spiritual quest in the physical world as it was given to us.  It is the art of transmuting the reality into something sacred, of mixing the sacred and the profane.” The facilitator asked the following question from the list of questions in the back of the book, “With this in mind, can you define your Personal Legend?”  The facilitator followed up with this question by stating that it is fine if no one wants to answer the question, but the facilitator thought the group should be aware that this was one of the major points the author was attempting to make. One member talked about a conference she attended for retired people and the speaker asked members to make two columns on a sheet of paper; on one column, they attendees listed their dreams and in the second column, attendees listed how those dreams were achieved.  The purpose of the exercise was to see that often our dreams are realized, but not always in the ways we expect.
  • We talked about which is more important, the dream or its fulfillment.
  • We compared and contrasted the Englishman’s search for the alchemist to Santiago’s search for a treasure.  Much of the contrast deals with the difference between learning about the physical world & its interactions and spiritual pursuits.
  • In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes about a universal language and so, the group briefly discussed what the author implies.  The Universal Language is part of the Soul of the World, requiring no spoken words and is a part of pure love.
  • Everyone agreed it is possible to attain more than one treasure in their personal quest of their ultimate calling.  
  • We discussed the intimacy between the spiritual and material worlds and the connections between alchemy and evolution.  Coelho uses alchemy as an analogy to show how the physical and spiritual world are connected. Just as raw metal (lead) is purified and transformed into a pure metal (gold); the human heart is also transformed/purified into “pure love” and a pure faith. (p. 150-151)
  • We discussed the story the alchemist tells Santiago about a Roman citizen who was visited in a dream by an angel telling him that his son’s words would be remembered for generations to come.  We talked about the lesson Coelho is teaching us; dreams aren’t always what they seem and we may interpreted the dream differently than the actual reality of how the dream is fulfilled.
  • We discussed the ending.  Earlier the alchemist told Santiago, “When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.”  We talked about how this simple lesson saved Santiago’s life. Members shared their like and dislike of the conclusion of the fable—we basically had two camps; members who enjoyed the ending and members who disliked the ending.

Resources:

To view Paulo Coelho’s blog, click here.


Oprah Winfrey interviews Paulo Coelho


Documentary about Paulo Coelho


Start at 1:03 to get a summary of Paulo Coelho’s top 10 Rules for Success.
These rules resonated with the members in the discussion group. 1) Don’t Be a Part-Time Dreamer, 2) Live In the Moment, 3) Discover Yourself, 4) Pay Attention to Life, 5) Take Risks, 6) Find Your Personal Legend, 7) Nurture Innocence, 8) Find Enthusiasm, 9) Treasure Everything, 10) Dive Into the Universe

For books and movie in our collection by Paulo Coelho, please click here.

Read-a-Likes:

The Alchemist