Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Third time reading this book. First time in 20 years. First time reading the Complete Edition (including rediscovered Part Four). The photography included in this edition really adds to the beauty and contemplation of the story: it is worth buying the printed book for the pictures alone.
This book never gets old. It just gets more useful and I understand it better. When I first read in college, it seemed like a weird fantasy story about a bird. My young self was a bit of an outcast. I very much wanted to have the tenacity to dig deep into a passion everyone else thought was useless and prove them all wrong. So I did that (computers). This is probably why Seagull is on every college reading list and rightfully so.
Then re-reading it in my 30s after leaving the Catholic church and recently returning, the religious undertones popped out. Especially in (new) part four where the true meaning of the initial quest has been lost in the bureaucracy of the belief system built around it (sound familiar Catholics?) This is a classic Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Hero is passionate, gets cast out of society, becomes enlightened around his passion, comes back to teach the TRUTH, is initially scorned, then accepted, then revered, then co-opted for other purposes and the TRUTH is lost. That is also the story of the Catholic Church in many ways.
Reading it again in my 50s after settling down a bit, the later parts of the story resonated. The desire to share your life wisdom with love and kindness. The frustration with success leading to misinterpretation and co-opting of original intent. But still the desire to give back to the next generation. The hope that an open mind willing to learn still existed.
Some favorite quotes:
“Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose in life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to life – to learn, to discover, to be free! Give me one chance, let me show you what I have found.” Jonathan “The Brotherhood is Broken” said the other birds and they turned their backs on him.
“His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see.”
He spoke of very simple things – that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form. The only true law is that which leads to freedom, there is no other. The only difference, the very only one, is that they have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.
A long silence. “Well, this kind of flying has always been here to be learned by anybody who wanted to discover it; that’s got nothing to do with time.”
“Why is it,” Jonathan puzzled, “that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself i he’d just spend a little time practicing? Why should that be so hard?”
“To begin with,” he said heavily, “You’ve got to understand that the seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.”
They were honored, and worse – revered, but they were no longer heard, and the birds who practiced flying were fewer and fewer.
Anthony Seagull didn’t have answers, but he knew that he would gratefully, gladly lay down his life to follow any bird who could demonstrate what he was talking about, show him just a few answers in life that worked, that brought excellence and joy into everyday living. Until he found that bird, life would remain gray and bleak, illogical, without purpose; every seagull would remain a coincidental collection of blood and feathers pointed toward oblivion.
My suggestion: Read this every 10 years. You will learn something new each time.