I had previously read Richard Bach’s Illusions and enjoyed it a great deal, to this day recalling some of the passages that really stood out to me. However, I never looked bothered to check whether Bach had written more, so I was pleasantly surprised when one of my coauthors introduced me to a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull that they owned.
JLS is a seagull who finds himself uninterested in the things most of the other birds are interested in. Instead, he becomes almost obsessed with pushing the boundaries of what he’s able to do, and he spends all of his time flying higher and higher and then diving down at incredible speeds. He gets shunned by the other birds and goes off to live on his own.
Eventually he dies, but ends up in a higher realm where he can learn to climb higher and dive faster. Through one of his mentors, he learns that there are even higher planes on which he could exist. However, he decides against pursuing these and opts instead to return back to the world he started in so that he can mentor other birds like him.
The message, especially having read other Bach books and knowing his background, is clear. JLS is an uplifting example of how we can transcend our own limitation if we simply try hard enough.
I really wanted to like this book, but I found that it fell short for me.
Perhaps I’ve just read to many of these types of inspirational novels over the years, but this one just felt way too heavy on the hope and way too light on the substance. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and even Bach’s Illusions simply have more to offer.
This work could serve as an introduction to Transcendentalism for anyone who isn’t familiar. It very well echoes the Transcendental sentiment of being appalled by the crowd and yearning for some higher purpose.
JLS’s mentor seagull does tell him to keep focusing on love. For Jonathan that ends up leading to his decision to go back and help the other seagulls, which calls up Plato’s allegory of the cave. Once we have seen the light and achieved a new understanding, do we go back into the cave and help others? What would we sound like to those others? Most likely we’d sound crazy.
And perhaps that’s what it comes down to. Jonathan Livingston Seagull sounds a little crazy to me. Take that for what you will.
If it were interpreted more allegorically, similar to Plato’s Cave, perhaps I would understand a little more. But based on what I’ve read, people seem to take it much more literally, in the sense that we as humans can quite literally transcend our physical limitations. While I do believe the mind is a very powerful tool, and we have yet to fully explore its potential, I do firmly believe there are limitations to what we will be able to do. None the less, if you’re in need of a short and inspiring read, this might be just the book you’re looking for.
Now, for sheer entertainment, the trailer from the movie version of this novella:
My favorite review of the movie: “They didn’t even try to make the seagulls look like they were talking!”
Buy the book: