By Richard Bach
“The gull sees farthest who flies highest.”
I find myself in the ideal location to reread Richard Bach’s classic fable, a book that celebrates the free spirit and exalts the joy of finding your own way in life. From my snug roost overlooking a pristine sandy beach backed by wind-blown dunes, I can absorb the spectacle of seabirds soaring above the water on thermal air currents. I am able, from this vantage point, to imagine a juvenile gull flying purely for the pleasure of doing so.
When I first read Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the early 1980s, it was widely regarded as something of a hippy-dippy, New Age novella by my peers, and they sniffily accused it of epitomizing some rather foolish notions of an earlier, overly naïve generation. In their opinion it was quaint but dated. It had, however, been recommended to me by a nature-loving friend who lived a simple life in a croft overlooking the sea (something I greatly aspired to at the time). She had indeed come of age in a far less disaffected and directionless, pre-Generation X era, but as a young person feeling out of place in a country newly obsessed with personal wealth and the accumulation of possessions, I was receptive to its message and relished the prospect of exploring the life philosophy of a seagull.
Reading it today, I see this slender, highly illustrated work is something of a Christian parable, but as a teenager, though vaguely aware of its religious undertones, I accepted it predominantly as an inspirational ode to self-determination via aerodynamic flight techniques. I too would rather break with tradition and discover the limitless essence of the mind. While not exactly life-changing, I found it touching, and to some extent, emotionally liberating.
Bach tells the story of a gull who lives his dreams and fulfils his ambitions against the conventions of his species. He learns to dip and soar like no other and, despite being ostracized by the flock, reaches a sort of seagull nirvana – a place where only those who achieve a higher purpose find themselves.
Unlike his family, for whom flight is a means to an end, Jonathan treats it as a spiritual quest, and he gradually comes to live by the mantra: “The only true law is that which leads to freedom”. As he flies at ever increasing speeds, he learns: “the gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly.”
Born in 1936, Bach served as a pilot in the US forces in his early years, and for a time, wrote articles for Avian before becoming a contributing editor to Flying. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of his books and short stories concern flight, either in the guise of an actual aircraft or figuratively. I admit to reading only this book from his varied oeuvre, but find he is the author of several bestsellers of the 1970s, including the award-winning Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.
My 2015 copy of the book, published by Thorsons, is the complete edition, which includes Bach’s recently rediscovered Part Four – continuing the story two hundred years after Jonathan’s disappearance from earth – and ‘Last Words’ (not, of course, the seagull’s, but the author’s in 2013).
Jonathan continues to represent for many the consummate symbol of an individual seeking to take control of his or her destiny, leaving behind the hegemonic, narrow-minded community from whence they came. With this I would agree. While I found the experience of rereading Jonathan Livingston Seagull a rather less profound experience than I did in adolescence, it still gladdens my heart, and it served to remind me that the tribe, while ostensibly offering safety and reassurance, can often be petty, cossetting and cruel to those who deviate from the norm.
“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding.”
This is my twelfth choice for The Classics Club.
I was a child when I read this (and it probably went completely over my head) but I do remember feeling exhilarated by that spirit of adventure and flying. Wonder what I would think of it now.
You should have a bash, Marina. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Bach is one of my wife’s favorite writers. I’ve read several of his books, including JLS (once) and Illusions (multiple times). It might be time for me to re-read both!
I really should read more of Bach’s work. JLS is such an iconic book, I tend to think it overshadows everything else he has written.
I’ve avoided this book, assuming it was quite religious, but your review has made me think again. Thanks
There are certainly religious connotations, which you can choose to overlook or not, depending on your beliefs. I prefer to see JLS more as a fable (or apologue) than a parable.
I have not thought about this book for many years but you make me want to read it again!
I’m glad I read it again, Lory. It was worth the effort. 😊
A lovely review Paula, I have never read this and you have encouraged me to give it a try. Thank you.
It’s worth reading, Anne, if only to discover why it’s so revered by some people. It’s such a short book – it can be read in no time – so takes up very little of your day.
Ah, memories! I read this in the 70s and adored it. I read it again in the 2000s for book club and my recollections were flattened. The joy from that first reading was missing, and was replaced by analysis and over-thinking. A reflection in itself on how best to read. Sometimes it pays simply to immerse oneself in the experience: to take flight and just enjoy the pleasure of reading 😊 Perhaps I’ll try it again before too long
Meanwhile, I loved your description of your coastal idyll. We have sunshine right now – albeit very briefly. To be on those dunes would be perfect! 🤗
I always associate JLS with my very first flat – a poky little place, which I decorated with what I considered to be bohemian artwork (of questionable taste) – as it was here I first read the book. On my wall I had a poster with a photograph of a seagull in flight, under which was the slogan: ‘If you love something set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.’ Do you remember them? So very seventies, but also true. I know the saying has often been attributed to Richard Bach – but it certainly isn’t to be found in this book. I tend to think it was someone else entirely. 🤣
When the sun appears, it’s such a joy, but as you say, it doesn’t last long. We’ve just had a particularly heavy downpour and found ourselves shouting to be heard above the racket on the roof! 🌂
The first slogan I had on my wall whilst still living at home was ‘religion is the opium of the people’. Looking back I now know I had no idea what it meant but I thought it sounded suitably rebellious! 😂 Yours is so much nicer! 🤗
Good luck with shouting above the rain. It seems there is yet more to come 😲
Books are definitely different when read in our teen or early adulthood years. I can relate. My interest in this book is because it was read by the characters of a book I adore, The Gray House, by Marian Petrosyan. I can see by your review, how it appeals to the teen mind.
Yes, it is definitely a book that appeals to adolescent or young adult readers. I haven’t come across The Gray House. I must look it up.
I’ve not read this but I do keep meaning to. I suspect I’ve missed the age where it would have biggest impact, but it sounds like it still has a lot to offer. Your home sounds idyllic Paula!
It’s fairly easily read because it’s so short (even with the additional chapter and ‘Last Word’). Some people find it massively inspirational and even claim it has changed their lives. I can’t say that happened to me (even as a young person), but I found it mildly uplifting – probably because I’m an cynic! 🤣
I was a teenager when I read this and remember being just thrilled by the idea that I could pick up a “grown-up book” and be done reading in an hour. Most likely I missed any parable-ness. 🙂
I imagine it was similar for me on the first reading! 🤣