It recently came to my knowledge that Coelho's text, The Alchemist, is being used as reading material in the English class of my 10th grade daughter. This text fulfills some of the criteria that I would deem suitable to use in the selection of reading material: It has touched scores of people, is widely available at a low cost, and is indicative of the time in which it was written. However, I would like to add a criterion that would restrict a selection to only pieces of literature:
The text should exhibit excellence in the craft of writing. Categorizing the text as fiction this would disqualify The Alchemist on several counts, the most damning one being Coelho's - giving him the benefit of a doubt - avoidance of filling of the frame work of the story with depth. The frame work is an impressive one; it has it all: exotic places, gypsies, war, robbers and an alchemist. All this is, however, left hollow as the author neither provides environmental depictions of any stature, nor does he breathe life into any of the characters; not even the main character of the text has been given any depth - close to the only thing we get to know is that he wants to travel. Sure, there are authors that do without much explicit descriptions; Hemingway is one, but he stills fills the frame by making the frame smaller, the use of understatements and by resting in the moment. Coelho makes no such attempts.
If we continue to regard the text as a work of fiction, we can also find another blatant sign of literary inability, the author's choice to tell the story strictly in linear time, without any spacial excursions. This technique is often enough found in pre-college essays, but hardly in fictional literature.
However, if we instead of fiction were to regard the text as philosophical literature, the same standards will of course not apply. Using certain assumptions or facts, logic and reasoning should here lead us to a conclusion. In Coelho's text we can find some facts and a conclusion. What is missing is the reasoning, in which lies the craft of this type of literature.
So, by looking for the signs of the craft of authors of fictional and philosophical literature we have not been able to classify the text, but maybe we need to look outside of the box? Could there be another type of literature, of which craft the author shows ability? I believe there is. Coelho excels in reading the mentality and literacy level of the modern consumer and gauges exactly what it is they want to hear about themselves. Pursue your Personal Legend, or in un-convolved speak: follow your heart - no discussion on moral standards or the like needed.
Thinking about it, this sounds like literature, self help such. But do we really think that should be required reading for our kids?
Karl Holmgren lives in Lakewood.