The Seagull Is Back

The Seagull is back. And I’m not talking about Anton Chekhov.

A friend of mine literally screamed — a spontaneous burst of horror — when she spotted the new edition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a once-popular book from the 1970’s, on a bookstore shelf. Richard Bach’s slightly corny fable about a bird who wants to fly faster and better was the “Da Vinci Code” of its age, and people usually either like it or violently hate it. I read it when I was a kid and thought it was pretty good. Whether it deserves a comeback or not, I’m really not sure.

This book was a classic of the late hippie age, the early 70’s, and as a kid I remember it showing up on the same bookshelves that would house Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I’m O.K. You’re O.K. I sat down and read the whole book at one point — you could read it in a single sitting — but it didn’t make a gigantic impression on me. I liked the positive message, but it all felt a little humorless and simplistic. But then, what did I expect? It’s a book about a seagull who thinks in English.

I always felt the triumph of Jonathan Livingston Seagull was partly the triumph of great book design. The cover is as much a work of pop art as anything Andy Warhol ever did, transforming a seagull’s body and spread wings into a cool, perfect white curve. The arrangement also neatly echoes the book’s basic theme: the pursuit of white-light perfection. The deep blue background is bold yet calming, the typography modest and modern. I sometimes think the book designer Chip Kidd is overrated; he still hasn’t done a cover as good as Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And I’m happy to report that the new paperback edition leaves the design mostly intact, though the book is slightly wider and larger.

The aesthetic didn’t survive the transition to film, though. The film was supposed to have been really bad, and I have never met anybody who’s seen it. I don’t even know if Neil Diamond ever saw it, and he did the music. If you’ve seen it, please tell us everything you remember.

Richard Bach’s follow-up novel Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah also suffered from a mediocre cover design, with a feather motif that unfortunately foretold the coming horrors of “Forrest Gump”.

Richard Bach is still writing, and commands a loyal audience to this day.

* * * * *

PS: Hey, I’m a heartthrob.

17 Responses

  1. Illusions of SeagullsIn
    Illusions of Seagulls

    In college, I had a wonderful relationship with a woman named Anna. Both of us knew we’d never be “together forever,” that we weren’t “in love,” and that we simply enjoyed one another’s company, and hated the same things and types of people with the same style of collegiate fervor. She was also AMAZING in the sack, but that is neither here nor there :).

    She was the one who turned me to Richard Bach, a writer I’d long dismissed because I thought the idea of a book about a TALKING SEAGULL had to be the dumbest thing on earth. Nevermind that I’d loved what Linda Lee, widow of martial arts master Bruce Lee, had written about her husband and his life after he’d injured himself lifting weights and was restricted to bedrest.

    She said, “It was like trying to keep Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a canary cage.” I liked that. But talking birds? Come ON.

    On our first date, Anna and I went to a bookstore, where I asked her the question I ask pretty much anyone I spend time with. “Who are your favorite authors?”

    I asked her, “What books do you love?”

    And she loved the talking bird book. She told me to buy it – even offered to buy it for me, if I remember right – and said it would change the way I looked at life.

    She also said that, even better than that, was his “other” book. That one being Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.

    She said I had to buy that one, too. She was pretty passionate about it, so why not. I bought both books, figuring I’d finally give “the bird book” a shot.

    And, young and naive and dumb and happy, yes. My world was officially rocked.

    It wasn’t so much Jonathan, though. It was “Illusions” that I loved. It might as well be called, “In the Air,” as it’s pretty much the same format as, “On the Road,” only in old biplanes, rather than old cars. Richard (the main character and narrator) flies around with his new friend Donald Shimoda, the “Reluctant Messiah” of the title, who teaches Richard all he needs to know.

    THIS was the book that blew me away. Short, punchy, and full of thought-provoking (some would say “fortune cookie,” but whatever) wisdom in the form of aphorisms peppered throughout the story.

    “The world is your exercise book, the pages on which you do your sums. It is not reality, although you can express reality there if you wish. You are also free to write nonsese, or lies, or to tear the pages.”

    Funny how some things stay with you. Are his books corny? Sure, a little. But isn’t Bambi (the Disney movie) also a little corny?

    Two guys in love with life (and some would say, each other), looking for the deeper meaning to all of it, racing around the country in their search, having adventures together? Even THAT sounds a little corny, when you really think about it.

    An aside to all this: while I long thought the idea of the “talking bird book” to be cheesy city, I never really had any problem with the idea of talking TURTLES. Who walked upright. And were NINJAS. The “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” were such a mainstay of my youth, much the way I imagine Jonathan might have been to hippie families of the 1970’s.

    Jonathan maybe taught some how to fly. The Turtles, in many ways, taught me how to write (or at least gave reason to WHY I write).

    And earlier this year, as you can see here:

    I was even able to combine these two passions, into a short (7 page) comic book story, ABOUT the Turtles (or at least, one of them) was published in the current Ninja Turtle comic title.

    The story, “Credo” (a title I cribbed from another writer, the Robert Fulghum) closes with a quote:

    “Here’s a test to see if your life is finished.

    “If you’re still alive, it isn’t.”

    It’s Donatello (the Turtles) who writes this, at the end of an essay he’s been laboring over for days.

    Where does the quote come from? Why, from Richard Bach’s “Illusions,” of course!

    As there’s a copy of the book (in the story) on the desk that Donatello writes at. So, you see?

    Sometimes these things come around full circle.

    And even have a happy ending :).

  2. Good interviewas a
    Good interview

    as a hearthrob!

    Jonathon Livinston Seagull reminds me of actress Barbara Hershey, who called herself Barbara Seagull for a while in the 70’s after the death of a seagull on a movie set.

    The 70s – what an era!

  3. Schlock, and …Schlock
    Schlock, and …

    Schlock sells. In all areas of the arts. Always has, always will.

    But, SPEAKING OF GOOD STUFF(!) If you can catch the Mark Morris Dancers/Mostly Mozart program on PBS (it’s making the rounds), don’t miss it whatever you do. Record it if you can. Wonderful music, magical dance. An antidote to the Seagulls, Thomas Kincades, and da Vinci codes of the world.

  4. Nothing like a surprise book
    Nothing like a surprise book review, Will, especially a well-done book review! I enjoyed reading that.

    Good quote, too: “…It is not reality, although you can express reality there if you wish…”

    Now, let me get this straight…Donatello is blogging? Cutting edge, dude!

  5. Neil Diamond DefenseWhile I
    Neil Diamond Defense

    While I won’t dispute anybody who makes fun of this book, that Neil Diamond soundtrack is a guilty pleasure of mine from way, way back.

    I discovered it in my dad’s cassette collection as a grade school kid, and I would curl up under the blankets listening to him croon nonsense for 45-minutes. Somehow, that nonsense can still, to this day, make my heart surge. Maybe I need help…

  6. One thing from meI don’t want
    One thing from me

    I don’t want to bore anyone here, but I don’t normally have much to say on this part of the site, mainly because I am not that great at formulating my opinions on things. But this time it seems a pretty easygoing subject. The Livingston Seagull book is just a simple tale told about being positive and being brave and being different and striving for excellence and just enjoying things because you enjoy them. It is, and I am not lecturing anyone here, about reaching some sort of different plain. What could possibly be wrong with that. It takes some sort of hardheartedness to try to look too deeply into something that is so simple and so worthy. It must surely be worthy to try to enjoy life and it must surely be worthy to say so. That is it. Sometimes we have to listen like children and not try to overanalyse things. When something good and positive is said then one ought to lean back and smile. The story is a parable about belonging and style and strength and joy. That is a great thing.


  7. Disappearing CloudsAh yes, I
    Disappearing Clouds

    Ah yes, I read it back then too, but that was before I discovered “literature” Nothing wrong with bringing it back, but some things, like this book, and maybe with it, the music of Paul Winter, should be left in their time.

  8. Fan of the SeagullMy dad, an
    Fan of the Seagull

    My dad, an ex AF pilot, had me read Seagull when I was young, and I read it again later after marrying a pilot.

    Then I sent it to him – the pilot I married – while he was in Iraq and made him read it.

    It’s fun, it’s passionate, and it’s fresh. Me likey Seagull.

    (And other Bach books, too, though “Bridge Across Forever” has lost some meaning for me since Bach’s divorce from Leslie Parish Bach…)

  9. 70s Zeigeist & Tom
    70s Zeigeist & Tom Robbins

    Tom Robbins seemed to capture the 70s zeitgeist much more than the other titles mentioned.

    There is now a doctorate awarded regarding the metaphysics of quality. Pirsig is a good writer but I scanned the book recently and it makes me want to ask: “Where’s the beef?” I first read it in the 70s and didn’t really get anything out of it.

    The Bookslut interview is first-rate!

  10. That’s hilarious, Jason.
    That’s hilarious, Jason. Well, I’m a big Neil fan. “Hot August Night” is my kind of Neil though. But I may download some of these songs on your recommendation, and will surely blame you if they’re terrible.

  11. I agree, Michael. I don’t
    I agree, Michael. I don’t mean to put anybody down for liking this book, and I know I did get something from it myself. As far as talking animals go, though, I just prefer more edge — Firmin by Sam Savage, Animal Farm by Orwell, Charlotte’s Web. I’m not sure I’d put Jonny Seagull in that list, but maybe it’s close.

  12. That’s pretty funny about
    That’s pretty funny about “The Bridge Across Forever” …

  13. ZeligAs a sarcastic freshman,

    As a sarcastic freshman, I entered a joke raffle and won the second-place joke prize of a ticket to see JLS at a campus screening. That same year, I had a serious thing for a waitress who worked at the Blue Heron cafe, the place Pirsig bought with the proceeds from “Zen and the Art…”.

    Further, I knew Suzanne Verdal (of the Leonard Cohen song), once crossed a street in London with Richard O’brien (the character “Riff Raff” from, and creator of, the RHPS) and tasted fondue, as a kid, in an earthtone-decorated breakfast nook owned by “swingers”.

    Yes, I *am* the ’70s.

    Of all my amazing memories, the recollection of watching JLS in a tiny auditorium packed with cackling, fart-simulating, gull-mocking smartasses, with my arm around a girl (not the waitress) who ended up really rather digging the film, is the dearest. Not.

    Personally, I preferred Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying”…

  14. Hey Levi – I’m glad to hear
    Hey Levi – I’m glad to hear that you’re a bid Neil fan – all these years I carried the burden in our family of being the uncool one to like him and now I discover you’re a secret fan – do I get some credit for this? Even though I like Neil, I never listened to his Seagull album so you’ll have to let me know how it is.

  15. Finally, a primary source.
    Finally, a primary source. Thanks for the report and the memories, Gus.

  16. “Sal” — actually I was
    “Sal” — actually I was hoping I could borrow the CD from you …

  17. Hemingway wrote that,
    Hemingway wrote that, right?


    Worst date conversation of all time:

    Him: So you like to read books, right?

    Me: Yes. I just finished The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. It was great.

    Him: Who?

    Me: Uh… he’s a Czech writer. Lives in Paris. Wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Yeah? Um… nevermind.

    Him: I don’t really read fiction, but every once in awhile, I like to read John Grisham books.

    Me: Oh.

    Him: And I like Hemingway.

    Me: Oh really?

    Him: Yeah. He wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, right?

    Me: I don’t think so, no.

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