According to the Englishman, what are the parallels between reading and alchemy in Coelho's The Alchemist?
In Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, the boy (Santiago) and the Englishman see their quests very differently.
It seems that the Englishman believes that reading is necessary in order to understand alchemy, though Santiago finds flaws in this logic, and even the Englishman doesn't seem to believe what he tells Santiago.
In one of the books [Santiago] learned that the most important text in the literature of alchemy contained only a few lines, and had been inscribed on the surface of an emerald.
"It's the Emerald Tablet," said the Englishman...
"Well, then, why do we need all these books?" the boy asked.
"So that we can understand those few lines," the Englishman answered, without appearing really to believe what he had said.
This really makes no sense, and Santiago sees little value in this information. Santiago believes that understanding the world is simply a conscious decision to study man and nature (including omens) to discover the secrets of the universe.
The Englishman seems to equate reading the books with learning the secrets of alchemy, though after reading them, he is really no closer in being able to turn common metal into gold, which is why he seeks the alchemist. However, because he believes the answers must come from the interaction of the books and science, never considering the part the world (omens, man, etc.) plays, he cannot discover the secret: for the secret is hidden within him, and can only be discovered by interacting with the world of nature around him.
The Englishman believes that books can open one's mind to the mysteries of the universe (even if one cannot understand the books...). He also believes that alchemy can unlock a world of mysteries (especially regarding the transfiguration of metal to gold) with the proper understanding. Whereas these two things parallel each other in the Englishman's mind, they are not mutually exclusive of each other: both are necessary to achieve success: and none of it is working for the Englishman.
Santiago, once again, cannot make the logical connection between book and alchemy, for it is not the written language where he believes true knowledge lies, but in learning the Universal Language, or the language of the world.
The Englishman uses his books to understand alchemy like a cook would use a recipe to create a beautiful dish. He wants to learn everything about the subject in order to understand a simple text written on an Emerald Tablet. He figures that if he understands everything there is to know, from alchemists' lives to discovering the Master Work by patience and a long-suffering search. The Englishman says:
"The alchemists spent years in their laboratories, observing the fire that purified metals. They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves" (81).
Sadly, after Santiago read the books, too, he realized that there were drawings and codes that he didn't understand, so he wouldn't be able to discover the Master Work. When he asked if it would be best to just understand what was written on the Emerald Tablet, the Englishman was disappointed because to him, alchemy was an art that depended on books, magic, codes, and the like in order to create the Master Work.
The Englishman believes that the best way to learn about alchemy is to read about it and to study it under a master. He reads about the lives of previous alchemists and he studies their texts on the Master Work. He claims, "Alchemy is a serious discipline. Every step has to be followed exactly as it was followed by the masters" (81). He explains to the boy that all of these books need to be read and understood so that one can understand what is written on the Emerald Tablet, "the most important text in the literature of alchemy" (80).
The boy, however, finds the books interesting but ultimately useless. He believes that "alchemy could be learned in one's daily life" (81). He reads the Englishman's books and tells him what he learned and that the lessons are "so simple that they could be written on the surface of an emerald" (83).
While the Englishman prefers to learn about alchemy and the Soul of the World through reading, the boy prefers to learn about it through oberservation of the world itself. As Santiago tells himself, "Everyone has his or her own way of learning things" (84).