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What does a story about a seagull who is trying to master the art of flying has to do with who you are and what you want to become?
And how can it teach you to live a better, more fulfilled life?
Let Richard Bach provide you the answers to these questions.
Because, as much as it is a fable, his ultra-successful “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” is also partly an autobiography.
So, it’s about him.
And, consequently, you.
Who Should Read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”? And Why?
In its blurb, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” is dubbed both “a bestselling modern classic” and “the most celebrated inspirational fable of our time.”
And, true, if you like inspirational fables such as “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” and “Who Moved My Cheese” – and even literary classics with fable-like qualities such as “The Old Man and the Sea” – “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” may prove to be a treat for you.
Just like most of the fables, it is both a short and an easy read (here it is, in its entirety), so most will probably be able to finish the book in an hour or so.
Which means that you have almost nothing to lose.
And, if you believe the millions who quote it as one of their favorite books, you can win a new understanding of what it means to be alive.
Richard Bach Biography
Richard Bach is an American writer and pilot, one of the most beloved inspirational authors worldwide.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Bach started his aviation career in the United States Navy Reserve and ended it in the USAF, as a fighter pilot. Afterward, he worked as a contributing editor for the “Flying” magazine and a barnstorming pilot.
In 1970, at the age of 34, Richard Bach published “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” a novella of fewer than 10,000 words, which sold over 1,000,000 copies in 1972 alone and topped the “New York Times” bestselling list for more than two years, all but an unprecedented success.
In 1973, the book was turned into a movie of the same name which ended up being nominated for two Academy Awards.
Bach never repeated the success of his debut book but did go on to write few more books which became bestsellers, such as “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah,” “Nothing by Chance,” and “One: A Novel.”
Jonathan Livingston Seagull tells the story of a special seagull who wants to be able to fly better and higher than any seagull before or after him. This, to say the least, doesn’t make him a favorite in his flock, and once he is banished from it, his spiritual journey actually begins.
It’s morning and the seagulls – a crowd of thousands of them – are doing what they do best – dodging and fighting for food leftovers a mile from shore.
However, Jonathan Seagull, “no ordinary bird,” firmly believes that there’s more to life than basic materialism:
Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight — how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.
This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one’s self popular with other birds. Even his parents were dismayed as Jonathan spent whole days alone, making hundreds of low-level glides, experimenting.
This experimentation helps Jonathan Seagull become better and better with every passing day.
This is how it looks like in the movie version:
However, this showing off also makes him an outcast.
Eventually, he’s cast out by his own Flock, which can’t understand why Jonathan experiments so much with flying, going so far to even fly in the dark.
No seagull has ever done such a foolish thing.
One day,” says to Jonathan the Elder of the Flock as our protagonist is banished during a special shaming ceremony, “you shall learn that irresponsibility does not pay. Life is the unknown and the unknowable, except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.
Now, a seagull shouldn’t talk back to the Seagull Council, but Jonathan does exactly that, claiming that he is the most responsible one of them all, since, unlike them, he tries to find and follow a meaning, a higher purpose of life.
For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads,” exclaims proudly Jonathan, “but now we have a reason to live – to learn, to discover, to be free!
To you, this may sound motivational as hell, but to the seagull relatives of Jonathan it’s the eloquent version of “You suck!”
No, you do – they say – and Jonathan is off on his own.
As an outcast, at the end of the first part, Jonathan meets a glowing pair of seagulls.
They introduce themselves as Jonathan’s brothers, and they tell him that it’s time that the second phase of his apprenticeship begins.
So, Jonathan flies with them into a perfect dark sky.
Jonathan is now part of a society in which all gulls are like him – they all seem to enjoy flying more than anything, including eating itself.
One of these gulls is the magnificent Sullivan who gives Jonathan few flying tips – including many more spiritual reincarnation-related lessons.
In the eyes of Sullivan, Jonathan must be a “one-in-a-million-bird” since all of the other seagulls there have become what they are through thousand lives.
We choose our next world,” Sullivan says, “through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.
Jonathan, understandably, believes that this place must be heaven.
However, the Elder of this new flock, Chiang, tells him that he’s way off:
Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect. – And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed, my son, is being there.
Jonathan befriends the Elder, and he starts mastering the art of flying as never before.
He learns to appear and disappear almost at will.
Eventually, Chiang vanishes as well, signaling the moment when the student has nothing more to acquire from the teacher and becomes a teacher himself.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull Epilogue
So, Jonathan now takes Fletcher Seagull under his wing.
(Hey – in this case, this has both literal and metaphorical meaning!)
Soon enough, other seagulls join in – all from his previous flock.
It seems that Jonathan has become a sort of a legend back where he originated from – as it often happens with outcasts.
The tables have turned:
Now, everyone is amazed by the skills of Jonathan and dreams of becoming like him.
However, this makes Jonathan a bit prouder than he should be, so one day he takes this a bit too far: he encourages Fletcher to fly too high and too fast.
Fletcher Seagull crashes into a cliff, and the rest of the gulls try to kill Jonathan, believing that he is a sort of a devilish figure trying to break up the Flock.
Jonathan survives the attack, and he and Fletcher start discussing love.
They realize that love means seeing the good in everyone and it seems that, at that moment, Jonathan Seagull forgives his original flock – and is free from the last burden of his life.
He disappears, leaving Fletcher Seagull on his own, resuming the great cycle:
Jonathan, the once-apprentice of Chiang has now completed the education of a future great teacher of exceptional seagulls, Fletcher.
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Our Critical Review
Just like many other motivational fables, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” hasn’t aged well. But, that’s only normal: fables are easily summarized and even more effortlessly remembered, so people tend to forget how innovative they may have been when first published.
It is easy now,” writes Tom Butler-Bowdon in his explanation for including “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in his list of 50 “timeless spiritual classics, “to overlook the originality of the book’s concept, and though some find it rather naïve, in fact, it expresses timeless ideas about human potential.
One Ray Bradbury seems to share this opinion, claiming that with this book, Richard Bach “does two things: he gives me Flight. He makes me Young. For both,” concludes Bradbury, “I am deeply grateful.”
And so are we, even though we feel that we’ve outgrown our early enthusiasm for this fable. But that may be because – if lucky – we’ve become Jonathan Seagull ourselves in the meantime.
After all, that’s who this novella is dedicated to: “the real Jonathan Seagull, who lives within us all.”