When I first saw PBS’s list of 100 books vying for the title “Great American Read,” I wasn’t sure which one I would vote for. There were so many books I loved on that list; I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pick just one. Little did I know I’d end up voting for a book I hadn’t read yet.
This past year, I participated in a year-long student teaching experience at the State College Area High School. On my last day, one of my colleagues gave me a gift: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. She had gotten me the 25th anniversary edition, and I was hooked from the moment I read the following lines from the foreword Coelho wrote in 2014:
“When I read about clashes around the world—political clashes, economic clashes, cultural clashes—I am reminded that it is within our power to build a bridge to be crossed. Even if my neighbor doesn’t understand my religion or understand my politics, he can understand my story. If he can understand my story, then he’s never too far from me. It is always within my power to build a bridge.”
Since its initial publication, “The Alchemist” has become the most translated book by any living author, a testament to the fact that Coelho’s story resonates with individuals across languages and cultures. I love the idea that stories can act as a bridge to bring people together. I believe that idea is at the heart of the search for the Great American Read, and it’s one of the many reasons why Coelho’s novel gets my vote.
“The Alchemist” tells the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who sells his flock to fulfill his Personal Legend: traveling to Egypt in search of treasure. Along the way, he meets a king and an alchemist who encourage him to continue on his quest.
As Santiago leaves Spain and travels through Africa, he learns lessons that are important for all of us to remember. The king teaches Santiago about the world’s greatest lie: “that at a certain point in our lives, we lost control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.” The alchemist teaches Santiago how to listen to his heart. And Santiago teaches us that “it’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”
I thought this book was beautiful and lyrical and wise. I still don’t know if I believe there is one “Great American Read,” but as I prepare to leave Penn State next year and begin my career as an educator, I do believe “The Alchemist” is the “Great American Read” for this stage of my life. I would recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially to anyone who is at a crossroads or is about to embark on a new journey. If you need an extra push to bet on yourself and follow your dreams, "The Alchemist" will deliver.
Reviewer Adison Godfrey is a graduate assistant at WPSU.