This book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was handed to me as a thing I should have on my shelf because it “was big in the 70’s” and I might want to look at it. Why I decided to read it so soon with so many other classics has to do mostly with the fact that it was short, but also because it was supposed to be “positive” and I had just finished reading something that was on the whole quite “negative”. I knew that it was “related” to the whole “power of positive thinking” movement and that there were a lot of pictures of seagulls in it, but otherwise I pretty much dove in blind.
And I was… surprised? I mean, with no expectations it’s hard to be surprised, but reading was a very strange experience. On the back of my copy Ray Bradbury says this book “gives me flight”, which was tantalizing but not up my alley. There are moments where I feel I am flying for just a moment and then I get run right into the ground. There is a story, surprisingly enough (it says so on the cover), and it focuses on Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a seagull who desires to fly for the sake of flying and not as a means to flail and fight for food. As a result of learning how to fly faster, higher and with more control he breaks seagull law and is ostracized from the group. From there he begins a spiritual journey or something.
My first problem is that I can’t find myself agreeing with the central point of the book (though, to its credit, it is short enough that I had finished it before this doubt had fully-formed in my mind). While it may be personally fulfilling to master an art, I’m not sure that stepping out of the “rat-race” for food to do that mastering will lead to anything but death. It turns out you can’t transcend reality (which does happen, he goes to a higher plane of existence) by being a Buddhist or really good at flying. In the real world, if you don’t eat you die, not escape to a higher plane of reality by virtue of the fact you love to do something you’re good at. And I do understand that it is a story meant to inspire, but it comes off like a snake-oil salesman who every once in a while stops to give you a bunch of numbers.
And that is my second problem (fortunately I only really have two and a half problems with this book); every once in a while, in what is supposed to be an immersive flying experience, Bach just starts listing a bunch of numbers and technical terms that really take me out of the whole thing, and towards the end I just started skipping sentences that had numbers in them. Not only does it break the immersion and flow by being very technical in a spiritual story, but it’s also very wrong. It never gets to that goya (not in reference to the painter*) moment. I do understand he’s supposed to be breaking records of seagull flight-speed here, but seagulls aren’t meant to go terminal velocity, and at such speeds most anything they could do would probably kill them.
I get that it’s just not a book that was written for me (maybe the spine on my copy literally snapping halfway through was a bad omen). I don’t need an uplifting “religion without religion” story to teach me to think outside of the box and find personal happiness or something. And I’ve very skeptical of people who try to “sell” that to me, though I’m sure there was no malicious attempt on Bach’s part there. I just can’t dig it. I can’t suspend my disbelief and pretend I’m flying, soaring to another reality. The layers just don’t make sense to me. And that’s not the writings fault, as, other than the numbers, it’s pretty good. It’s readable, understandable, and emotive. The only nitpick I have is a few times he does that thing where he “says” someone spoke for a while, but summarizes it in one sentence and then has another character speak as if only that sentence was said. And that’s just a very specific thing that bothers me when a writer wants a character to have an inspirational speech but can’t actually think of an inspirational speech. But that and the numbers are few and far between in this relatively short book that reads very quickly and does leave a good feeling in your stomach (heart) if not my head.
So, despite a book about spiritual teleporting seagulls in seagull heaven not really being the one for me, is it a good book? And the answer to that is “probably”. I don’t think I’ll be recommending it to anyone, but I think it is appropriate for many people at a certain time in their life. It’s like a child’s version of a Zen master/student spiritual uplifting thing, and there are simple empowering messages behind it. I wouldn’t blame anyone for liking it or thinking it was good. And there are quite a few pictures of seagulls in it, which, while not the most attractive birds, evoke the ocean in a pleasant way.
*As in the Urdu word