Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Title: Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Author: Richard Bach (with photographs by Russell Munson)
Publication date: 1970

What’s it about?Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a bird who desires more from life than just grubbing for food: he wants to become ever more skilled in the art of flight. Cast out from his flock, he perfects his technique and moves into a higher realm with other gulls who share his aims. He finally achieves his dream of bringing all he has learned back to those members of his flock who are now willing to listen.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the public library – but I will at some point be buying a copy to keep.

What did I learn from it?

I hadn’t expected the book to contain pictures, but the black and white photographs of seagulls in mid-air really added to the vibe of the story. It’s one thing reading about the joys of flight, but quite another to see it in motion, even if through a static rather than a moving picture (although the book was later made into a film). This was a great reminder of the value of illustrations – and not just for children, but for adults too. A well-chosen visual image can greatly complement the visions conjured up by a skilled piece of writing.

I also learned something about the technicalities of a seagull’s flight. The author goes into great detail about wingspan, speed and angles; he has experience in aviation, which explains his interest in flight as a metaphor for life, but the focus on Jonathan’s technique was, again, something I wasn’t expecting. I now have a renewed appreciation for the abilities of other creatures with an anatomy different to my own.

How did it make me see the world differently?

The novella is quite clearly described as a ‘fable’, so it is easy to see the relevance of Jonathan’s experiences to our own human lives. He is not content with the limited life led by the other seagulls, and instead chooses to pursue his own dreams. For this he is exiled from the flock, but accepts this as the price for living life on his own terms; and he uses his new-found freedom to relentlessly pursue perfection.

Anyone who has ever stepped outside the bounds of what society deems a regular life will feel kinship with Jonathan. The definition of a regular life will, of course, differ from culture to culture, but as we are social creatures, we cannot deny the pull of the group, the urge to belong and to continue to be accepted. Difficulties arise when we wish to do something that we know our group will disapprove of, whether that is quitting the 9-5 to become self employed, selling a suburban home to go and live off grid in a yurt, or relocating to the other side of the world to pursue a new skill.

This is a familiar tale – the brave soul who breaks with their group to achieve accomplishment and fulfilment – but the interesting thing about Bach’s story is that he does not pretend the journey is easy. Jonathan endures great pain, suffers many setbacks, and even risks death (indeed, it is possible that he does indeed ‘die’, at least on one plane of existence); every day is a constant hard struggle to reach the heights he so craves. And yet reach them he does.

It is an essential reminder that we can all strive to be much better versions of ourselves, and push ourselves to limits we never thought we could attain – but that we should not expect it to be easy. If we want our lives to be truly amazing, rather than merely average, we should be prepared to work for it.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

After my last post, in which I promised to take things a little easier towards the end of this year, this book seemed to be telling me the opposite! Is life too short to relax and smell the flowers? Should I be pushing myself harder and harder? I felt exhausted just thinking about it – and I eventually decided that my answer was ‘no’.

I know from many years’ experience that if I work myself too hard, I burn out. I try to fit too much stuff into my days, and I crash, wasting more time than if I’d taken it easy in the first place. The key for me, I have realised, is to find focus: to figure out what my time can most valuably be spent doing, rather than running around on a variety of busy tasks that ultimately don’t yield great gains.

I’ve decided that my focus next year is going to be creative writing. I already feel excited at the thought of it, and am sneaking odd hours here and there to develop stories, even though I don’t ‘officially’ have to start until 1 January. It no longer feels like an exhausting struggle, because – probably – it’s the one thing I’ve been wanting to do all along.

And so the challenge I’ve set myself after reading Richard Bach’s fable is to use it as inspiration to write a fable of my own. Something creative, something that ties in with my interests in sci-fi and fantasy, and probably something based around the wonder of books and libraries. I’m hoping that this will be a good way in to writing more lengthy works – and if I can meet my regular three-month target, then maybe by next Spring I’ll have my first piece of creative fiction out there in the world!

A musical interlude

This song came to me almost as soon as I’d chosen the book. It’s not quite the right kind of seabird, but the feel of the track fits perfectly with Bach’s visions of a bird freely in flight across the oceans.

No words are needed.