The Alchemist: A Deeper Quest for Meaning

18.10.2023 |

Episode #3 of the course 100 Nonfiction Books Everyone Should Read by John Robin


Welcome back to our course on 100 Nonfiction books everyone should read!

Last lesson, we explored the biography, memoir, and travel category. Put together with the science, history, and textbook category, your to-read list is not just growing bigger—it’s also getting quite diverse.

Get ready to explore the next category, where we’ll add more titles—and more diversity—through the next 10 recommendations that await!


Philosophy, Religion, and Spirituality

Top recommendation: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

This next category includes all books that explore aspects of life’s deeper meaning. Be it through the lens of a particular religion, a search for spiritual insight, or a more general look at questions like, “Who are we? Why are we here?” The books of this category shift away from facts of the world and personal stories and move toward discussions or explorations.

Again, it was difficult to decide on a top book for this category, because there are so many worth reading. But if I had to pick one, it would be The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

On the surface, this book appears to be fiction. It tells the story of Santiago, a boy seeking treasure he saw in a dream, whose quest takes him to a wise alchemist. The alchemist teaches him to discover his true self—and only then, as a result of natural events that transpire from his discovery, is the boy able to find the treasure.

On a deeper level of meaning, this book is more of a commentary on material versus spiritual pursuit. In the beginning of the book, Santiago is concerned with finding the treasure from his dream, such that he journeys far from home in Spain—all the way to Egypt!—to find it. If not for discovering the alchemist, Santiago would have failed in his quest, seeking everywhere for a treasure that is in the last place he would expect. At the end of the book, after being robbed by thieves, losing everything he had gained on his journey, Santiago discovers—from something said by one of the very thieves who robbed him—the true meaning of his dream, for the treasure is at home, where he had the dream.

The treasure was right in front of him the whole time—his journey was unnecessary!

And yet, on the deeper level the book is concerned with, it was necessary, because by the end of the journey, Santiago has found his true self and that is the greater treasure. He goes home to material wealth, but it comes with spiritual wealth that outshines everything else.

Coelho’s book came to him much like Santiago’s treasure. In a mere two weeks, he wrote it in full, but before he could do this, he had to go on his own personal journey of self-discovery. As he put it, through his life journey, the book had been “written in my soul.”

Through this timeless tale, Coelho has given us a book to examine the importance of personal inner growth as the true foundation of our lives and identity.

It certainly inspired me to put certain aspects of my own life first, ones I never would have thought were important next to the hustle and bustle of work: mediation, journaling, reflection, gardening, and playing the piano.

Of course, I still strive for wealth and success! But I have learned that, when they come, they will not mean as much to me if I have not nurtured my spirit on the way to attaining them.

Runners up:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl is another book that, like The Alchemist, takes on one meaning at its surface, but much deeper, reveals something far more profound. Detailing his experience in a Nazi concentration camp, the book explores the psychological insights he developed to cope with the daily horrors of his incarceration. Whereas the similarly-themed Diary of a Young Girl from yesterday’s lesson is a window into the helplessness of the Jewish struggle during the Nazi occupation, Man’s Search for Meaning peers in deeper to reveal a radical new way of thinking, an outlook that can be adopted in even the worst of situations so as to draw on the greatest of inner strength.

The Art of Happiness by the 14th Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler takes a very different angle on life’s deeper meaning. Having devoted his every waking moment for decades to a practice called bodhicitta—the practice of altruism—the Dalai Lama shares the systematic methods he uses to cultivate inner joy, regardless of circumstances.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, another contemporary spiritual master, is a great complement to The Art of Happiness. Reading both books together, you can learn to really cultivate attention to the richness offered in each moment of life, be it through learning to recognize deeper unconditional joy or deeper presence.

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael Alan Singer shows yet another direction in which you can discover richer dimensions to your daily life: that of working on other-orientation. Through this process, Singer teaches you how to let go of the self-cherishing attitudes that limit us from being our truest, freest self.

Honorable mentions:

Here are five honorable mentions to round out our list of 10:

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, containing 26 fables of spiritual reflection that explore the human condition through the lens of mystic verse.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, featuring the insights of the 2nd century innovative Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, with a message on how to live a balanced, realistic life.

Republic by Plato, a political and philosophical work from 2400 years ago, that is the source of many of our modern ideas of what makes a quality life.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, a more critical look at what defines good and evil, that makes you rethink many of your assumptions.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong, exploring the facets of our idea of God, and what this means in many different cultures and different times of history.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll see what top 10 books await in the next category!


Recommended movie

The Pilgrim (2014), about Paulo Coelho’s life


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