The Alchemist: More Lead than Gold

THE ALCHEMIST (1998/2012)
Paulo Coelho
HarperCollins 978-0061122415

Did you know that this novel is the best-selling translated book of all-time (65 million copies in 56 languages and climbing)? I did not, but I did know that it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for ages, and continually comes out in new editions. My curiosity was sparked, so I read it. Although it’s a book about the search for enlightenment, I can’t say that I found any philosophical or literary gold in its pages. If I might extend the alchemy metaphor, it felt pretty leaden to me.

It’s scant volume (197 pages) centered on a bright, wanderlust-stricken Andalusian shepherd named Santiago. His wanderlust leads him to sell his sheep and head off to Tangiers and beyond. This is a book about Santiago’s longings, visions, chance encounters, desires, and treasures won and abandoned. At each stopping point Santiago meets a teacher, first an old king named Melchizedek, who tells him that everyone has a “Personal Legend” that he or she must discover, and who gives him two divination stones, Urim and Thummim.  Next he encounters a shopkeeper, from whom he learns how dreams can empower or handcuff; then a dessert lass named Fatima, who awakens love and desire; an Englishman who tells him about the Philosopher’s Stone; an actual alchemist, who identifies Santiago as a true disciple; and finally a Coptic monk, who helps him identify the things that have value from those that do not. In essence, it’s an allegory about finding one’s own destiny.

If this sounds like something Kahlil Gibran might have written, you’re right. I suspect one of the book’s attractions is that it is ecumenical, drawing upon ancient, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions to make the point that the search for truth and meaning is the same across religious and cultural lines. Our multicultural portrait is completed by the fact that Coelho, the author, is a Brazilian writing in Portuguese. His heart is in the right place, but perhaps I’m too jaded–I found The Alchemist a lightweight and frivolous book. A New York Times reviewer called it more of a self-help book than a novel, and Coelho has also been accused of rewriting one of the Arabian Nights tales. Both of those critiques have merit, but my brief is with its style and message. Perhaps it loses something in translation, but to me it read like a Young Adult novel and its revelations akin to those that might gobsmack an adolescent. When read from the perspective of one who has journeyed longer, those revelations seem obvious and underdeveloped. For me, The Alchemist sparked no magic.

Rob Weir  


Neil Young: Waging Heavy Peace

Neil Young
Blue Rider Press ISBN: 978039915946
* * ½  

Confession: I’ll listen to or read anything with which Neil Young is associated. This is an important admission because how much you will enjoy his recent autobiography (newly available as an e-book) probably depends upon how much you already know, as this one is definitely for Young fans.

Neil Young is a heck of a songwriter, but he’s no literary stylist. This is billed as an autobiography, but it’s really a stream of consciousness memoir loaded with asides. Young is refreshingly earnest and guileless, but he’s all over the place in how he presents his story. There is no single narrative arc and Young seems to have typed his thoughts as they occurred. There is very little attempt to group likeminded themes or anchor the story in any way. Unless you have followed his life and career, you will find the book’s chronology confusing–sequencing just isn’t something that concerns Young. For example, snippets of his Ontario boyhood come later in the book and are interspersed with thoughts about recent events, friendships, concert memories, shout-out thank yous, and commentary on his hobbies.

We learn that Neil Young really likes cars, toy trains, guitars, playing with Crazy Horse, and clean sound. It would be no stretch to say he’s obsessed with these things to the point of needless repetition. We read, for example, numerous screeds on the horrid sound quality of MP3 and CD files, and of his vision for analog-based high-quality recordings. It’s been on his mind for so long that his original entrepreneurial enterprise, PureTone, changed its name to Pono because of trademark disputes–something we only learn after the fifth or sixth explanation of why he cares so much about sound. We get similar disjointed discussions of the LincVolt, Young’s conversion of a 1959 Lincoln Continental, which he hopes will become a usable large electric car. These are laudable projects, but they belong in separate chapters so Young can stop rupturing the narrative with sermons.

Of course, these projects are laudable, which is why we read about them, and Young is a man of both talent and integrity, which is why we care. Young makes no attempt at self-aggrandizement, nor does he ask us to overlook his failings. He is quite willing to admit that he was responsible for the breakup of past relationships–most famously with actress Carrie Snodgrass–that he used to drink to excess, that he has disappointed friends, and that he smoked pot regularly until ordered not to by his doctor. (Young suffers from epilepsy, about which he is also candid.)

Young fans will find interesting reflections on his parents–his father, Scott Young, was a respected journalist and sportswriter–of his early days of playing rock, doo-wop, and R & B covers, of being inspired by more mature bands, and of hanging out with everyone from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to Devo, Bruce Springsteen, and Pearl Jam. But this is not one of those rock biographies in which the protagonist disses other musicians or past band members–Young has little but praise for everyone with whom he has played and tells very few tales out of school. He considers himself lucky for possessing Broken Arrow Ranch in California, for his marriage to Pegi, and for longtime friends (including Pancho Sampedro, Billy Talbot, Steve Stills, and Nils Lofgren). Sometimes we wish Young was more candid; fans know, for instance, that he has had famed spats with his friends—especially Stills.

Young is now 68, and the book has the wistful feel of an aging man musing upon  the joys and losses in his personal journey. (There are loving passages to departed friends such as Danny Whitten, Ben Keith, Nicolette Larson, and Kurt Cobain.) Young adores being a father, even though both of his sons suffer from cerebral palsy and younger son, Ben, is quadriplegic, and his daughter, Amber Jean, inherited his epilepsy. When he tells us that he learned from Ben how many ways there are to communicate, we believe him.

This is not great literature. The books runs over 500 pages and a good editor could have pared it by 25%. (A developmental editor would have restructured it and made Young connect a lot of the stray dots.) But what comes through clearly is that Young considers his life the eponymous hippie dream. Who can begrudge a man who chased the Muse and found inner peace?

Rob Weir


Fighting the War on Stupidity

How dumb is your state?
I guess reality is how you spin it. Why else would the April 29 report that the U.S. high school graduation rate hit the 80% mark excite anyone? Progress is a good thing, but let’s be realistic–one of five students leaves school each year without a high school diploma. That translates to about 820,000 of the roughly 4.1 million students in high school. Each year the number of high school dropouts surpasses the entire population of five U.S. states. There are six states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Carolina) in which the high school graduation rate is under 70% and it’s less than 60% in the Nation’s Capitol. I wish we’d focus on these figures instead.   Lyndon Johnson waged a war on poverty; I want to declare one on stupidity.

A high school diploma alone won’t prepare you much. Let’s get real. This is not the United States of the 1950s; you need a college degree to manage a McDonald’s or a Wal-Mart these days. Those with only a high school degree will end up working in dead end jobs at such establishments and those without a diploma will be lucky to get employment that good. Sure–some people will go into trades, or factory work. An infinitesimal number will defy odds and become very successful, but blue-collar America is analogous to the last passenger pigeon–all we can really do is conduct the postmortem. What future will Gen X have when it has less education than the Baby Boomers? Can you say, “Your pizza will be delivered in 20 minutes?”  

The national problem is obvious–there are simply too many undereducated Americans. Our 80% high school graduation places us far behind the usual suspects–Japan, Germany, South Korea, Israel, the United Kingdom, and all of Scandinavia (including Iceland)–but it also puts us behind Slovenia, Portugal, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. How will Americans compete in the global economy? I suppose the good news is that 68% of those that do get a high school diploma will enter college–roughly 2.2 million per year. The bad news is that just 1.3 million of them will obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years–a college drop out rate of about 40%. To put it in perspective, when graduation occurs this May, America will have half as many heroin users as newly minted college grads.

Each spring bright seniors ask me why demagogues, fear mongers, and sociopaths dominate political discourse, and why so many Americans believe ludicrous things. Among these: nearly a quarter of Americans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, 18% that he’s the Anti-Christ; 37% deny the reality of global warming, perhaps because 18% think Earth is the center of the universe; 28% still think Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, over a decade’s worth of contrary evidence notwithstanding; one-third of Texans believe that dinosaurs and human coexisted, presumably keeping good company with the 60% of Americans who think evolution is a hoax and the 51% that  thinks Fox News is unbiased. As my grandma used to say, that’s just crazy talk.

So what do I tell wide-eyed soon-to-graduates? That one of the keys to negotiating adult life is to realize that Americans hate it when they’re called “dumb.” They should avoid saying that, but realize that many American really are dumb–or at least woefully undereducated. I tell them that when they walk down the street, odds are that roughly six out of every ten people they see will be less educated than they. I also tell them to flaunt their smartness when job hunting­–in a tight job market there’s no reason for employers to hire the uneducated.

There are fruitful debates to be had about social problems and the root causes of under-education, but liberals simply need to change their yada-yada tune on this. I don’t want to sound heartless, but some stark truth is in order. We need to make high school kids realize there is no future if they drop out. Stay in school and we can talk about how much your life sucks. Stay in school and you’ve got a fighting chance of getting into college, getting out of your rut, and avoiding a life of stupidity.