Jonathan Livingston Seagull - Richard Bach

It's really amazing that this book, published in 1970, got onto the top sellers of all time list. It is barely 127 pages long - and that includes many pages of seagull photos, with very few words per page. The margins are very large :) It's a story about a seagull who, unlike his comrades, is not happy yelling "Mine! Mine! Mine!" for food. He loves to soar, and fly. He faces rejection and ridicule for his quest for greater heights. And of course, he inspires all of us to reach for our goals.

So first, obviously this book is REALLY short. I just re-read it and, without racing at all, I was done in 16 minutes. It's very short. There aren't long, drawn out characterizations here. Jonathan learns to fly well in about 2 pages, and by page 31 he is fully aware of all of his skills. By page 57 he in "Heaven" - or at least in another stage of life in with like-minded seagulls, speaking with telepathy. Chiang is the elder there who tells Jonathan that there actually is no Heaven - that Heaven is the state of being perfect. Jonathan decides to return to Earth and help others. He spends a few pages teaching Fletcher his skills, and then vanishes, leaving Fletcher to teach the new seagull students how to fly. The story ends.

Really, the story here is that Jonathan and Fletcher were not "special" in any way. The point is made many times that they were seagulls like any others. The difference is that they chose to strive to better themselves. They were not content to merely eat and sleep. They wanted to become really good at what they could do - fly. The elders explain that for many people, this process takes many lifetimes. If you do well in a given life, you graduate to a "higher" life where you can then work with people on your next stage of progress. If you just get by in your current life, then you get reborn into that same level, to have another chance to strive.

So it's very interesting how different people have interpreted this book to be a religious tome. Christians often say that Jonathan stands for Jesus. He was born "with men" - he learns his special skills, and then he returns to earth to help guide mankind to be better. There's even a mob scene where the "normal seagulls" try to kill Jonathan for being different. On the other hand, the story clearly says there is no Heaven - that the point of life is to keep trying and trying until you figure out your own path to perfection. The reincarnation and perfection-from-within is very Buddhist. It's not an external God that gives you this perfection. You are born with the innate ability to attain perfection - but it is up to you to find the desire and take the steps to reach it.

I've owned this book for many years and do enjoy it. But I do have to say that it is REALLY short and really basic. The whole Jonathan evolution is barely touched on. You don't get much sense of growth as he instantly goes from normal seagull to glowing Special Seagull. This is sort of a theological primer for those who don't normally read books on philosophy. There are many, many books out there that get into these sorts of topics in a far more meaningful way. But on the other hand, much as the Matrix series got many non-philosophy students to learn about some pretty basic philosophical ideas, this book also opened the door for many people on the ideas of striving for inner perfection. If you handed all of these people a complex tome on the topic, they probably wouldn't have read it. But maybe by getting that door opened, and that interest piqued, they then went forward and learned more. You have to get that interest started somewhere. If the interest came from a super-short, super easy to read, picture-filled booklet, does it really matter?

On a personal note, I really do feel that people need to sit back and consider what they spend their hours each day doing. We only have one life - and most of us who can afford to buy books have an amazing wealth of luck that 90% of the world's population dreams of having. We have clothes, we have places to sleep, we have access to healthy food and water. It would be a wonderful thing if each of us spent even a portion of our day reaching out to help others, to help the world become a better place for us all to live in. We don't need to watch TV - there are other far more important things to do in life.

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Other Notes:
People Magazine in April 27, 1992 claimed the book sold 30 million copies. That would have made it the top selling book of all time, but others doubt this figure. A Publisher's Weekly report of 1975 only has 9 million copies sold. Richard Bach claims to be related to the famous musical Bach. Richard LOVED to fly and began flying at age 17.

Richard had married early and had 6 kids - but by 1970 he'd hit hard times and divorced. In the same year, responding to visions, he wrote this story and became a millionaire. By all accounts he was good to his ex and kids, money-wise - but he burned through his millions quickly and became broke again. In 1981 he married Leslie Parrish with whom he has written several other books.

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