James Burke is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and underestimated contemporary intellectuals. Most people know him, I think, more from his TV appearances than writings. And while he is a scientific journalist and a historian of science, his most important contribution is his insight into the way in which human thought evolves across centuries towards higher degrees of complexity and abstraction producing a myriad of inventions we all know – and some we’ve already forgotten.


I was on Jakusho Kwong Roshi’s lecture today and I have his book here before me. But I won’t write about it this week because I think I should first scribble a few words about books that are, in my humble opinion, better for those who never heard much about Buddhism before. I’m referring to Geshe Michael Roach’s two excellent works – “The Diamond Cutter” and “The Garden“.


In my weekly book review I will this time write about a book, which in fact exists in three volumes. It is so because after releasing the first one the author has added two more on the same subject, with more evidence and discussion of his claims. I’m referring to the “Icebreaker”, “Day M” and “The Last Republic” by Viktor Suvorow, pen name of Vladimir Rezun.


I’m going to write about a book that is important to me – “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

I clearly remember the first time I’ve read it. It was in the spring of 2001, which was to be full of emotions and events I was yet unaware of. Tipped by a friend about this book I bought it in a small bookshop I happened to walk by on the lunch break. I started reading just as I left the bookshop, I read while waking back to the office and all the rest of the day spent there (I can admit it now having long left that company). I finished the first reading the very same day, late at night, deeply moved.

I’ve read it many times since. Last time was two months ago. My Spanish friend sent me a book as a gift. When I unwrapped it I rejoiced – it was “El Alquimista” – the Spanish translation. I was really happy, because somehow reading “The Alchemist” back then in 2001 was one of the small influences, small tips that resulted in my interest in Spain and subsequent studying of Spanish. Even despite the fact that Coelho is Brazilian and writes in Portuguese I connected his prose with Spain in my mind. And I always wanted to read it in Spanish. And so it happened, thanks to Miriam, that this was exactly the first book I really read in Spanish.

This Spanish connection is not totally absurd because The Alchemist begins in Andalusia and tells a story of a young Andalusian shepherd on his journey of self discovery. Great lesson of this book is to follow your dreams whatever they are. If you allow your dreams to die you’ll never forget it and your soul would become incinerated, charred shadow, devoid of joy of life.

It makes no sense to recount the story told in The Alchemist here. It is rather simple and serves more as a glue to connect a series of parables in which Coelho transmits his outlook on the world and life. It’s a rather unusual point of view of a Christian, Catholic mystic. But Coelho had a rather unusual life that included psychiatric treatment (thank to his parents), indulgence in the occult, political imprisonment by the Brazilian junta, then spiritual growth and unparalleled success as a writer in the recent years.

Coelho was accused of being shallow and overrated, mainly by critics in his native Brazil. Maybe I’m too shallow but I think in his books he skillfully touches the depths of what really perplexes us all – what is our life and what to do with it. It is, indeed, an overexploited theme in literature – but does it make it less relevant and inspiring? Go and check for yourself.

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