The Alchemist: A Best Seller With Life Lessons

By Katherine Sharma

alchemistI must admit that I had not read The Alchemist, an allegorical novel by Brazilian-born Paulo Coelho, until this year. First published in the U.S. in 1993, the novel is celebrating over 20 years of international popularity. It has been translated into at least 56 languages and is in its 345th week on The New York Times paperback best seller list as of today. So why the cult status?

It is the story of a young Andalusian shepherd boy who travels to the Egyptian pyramids after a recurring dream of finding treasure there, with encouragement from a Gypsy fortune-teller and a strange old man claiming to be a king. Along the way, he is robbed and earns money in business with a crystal merchant, joins a caravan across the desert and meets a bookish Englishman on his own quest, falls in love with a beautiful Arab girl in an oasis, survives desert tribal warfare, and is guided by omens and a mystical Alchemist to the treasure of his dream, or “Personal Legend.”

That plot synopsis and the book’s short length and stylistic simplicity are deceptive; this novel is densely packed with complex spiritual and psychological questions. Basically, it is an allegory of the obstacles we face to finding and fulfilling our dreams, or Personal Legends per the novel. What obstacles? First come the prejudice, anxiety and guilt that, beginning in childhood, society employs to cause us to abandon dreams as impossibilities and ignore our hearts. Next is the love we have for others, because we fear to lose or hurt loved ones if we focus on realizing a personal calling. Third, we fear suffering from the inevitable defeats and failures. Last comes our fear of actually realizing a dream, of disappointment and guilt in success. But if all fears are overcome and you do things that truly fill you with enthusiasm for your life, then you gain the joy and peace that come from being in tune with the “Soul of the World” and the chosen path for you.

After finally reading the book, I realized that, contrary to my assumption, The Alchemist has not achieved cult status because it offers a specific way to happiness. Rather, it reminds us, mired in day-to-day tedium and anxiety, that if we are willing to disinter deferred dreams, trust in the nurturing power of love, and accept the inevitable scars, we can live more fully. That’s a best-selling lesson. To buy the novel, go to


Katherine Sharma’s family roots are in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But after her early childhood in Texas, she has moved around the country and lived in seven other states, from Virginia to Hawaii. She currently resides in California with her husband and three children. She has also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia, and makes regular visits to family in India. After receiving her bachelor’s degree. in economics and her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Katherine worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 15 years. She then shifted into management and marketing roles for firms in industries ranging from outdoor recreation to insurance to direct marketing. Although Katherine still works as a marketing consultant, she is now focused on creative writing.

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