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.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany'sTitle: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Author: Truman Capote
Publication date: 1958
Genre: Novella

What’s it about?Breakfast at Tiffany's

The narrator moves into an apartment in New York City and meets fellow tenant Holly Golightly, a ‘girl about town’. Holly treads very lightly in the world; she hosts regular parties, courts a number of mysterious gentlemen friends, and seems not to want to get tied down – yet. The narrator gets to know her – and finds out more about her background and upbringing – before Holly disappears as quickly and elusively as she has come.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the university library again. Due to a system upgrade they’re running at the moment, I get to keep it for longer than normal, so I might even dip into the other short stories included in this volume.

What did I learn from it?

I was reminded of the wonders of serendipity that the Book Diaries have brought me over the past year and a half, and the strange connections I’ve made between seemingly unconnected books.

Do you remember the Two Ronnies’ ‘Mastermind’ sketch, where Ronnie Corbett’s specialist subject is ‘Answering the Question Before Last’? I feel as though something similar has been happening with the last few books I’ve been reading.

When I read Lolita, the one thing I took away from it was, perhaps surprisingly, the road trips that the two protagonists go on. Fast forward to my next book, On the Road, and… well, you can see the link.

What did I take away from On the Road? The sense that I felt a little apart from everyone else around me, that I wanted to tread lightly on the world, not make too many commitments, and would run away the minute someone tried to pin me down. Fast forward to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that’s not a million miles away from a description of Holly Golightly herself.

I doubt this will continue. You can read what I’m going to take away from Breakfast at Tiffany’s further down the page – but I’d be very surprised if it had any connection whatsoever with my next book: Naked Lunch. Although you never know… Time will tell!

How did it make me see the world differently?

I was expecting to love the book and the character of Holly, probably because so many people have expressed such fond opinions of Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of her in the film version (which I haven’t seen). So I was surprised when, actually, I didn’t.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy the book – I did. And I certainly warmed to Holly a little more towards the end, as we discover more of her story and understand (perhaps) why she is the way she is. It’s also very peculiar to admit to not being keen on someone who I recognise is very like me in several ways (see above). In fact, it’s not just peculiar – it’s downright disturbing.

But I can’t escape the fact that when I first met the character, I really didn’t like her at all. Whether it was the shallowness, the using of people for her own ends, the value she places on monetary acquisitions… I’m not sure, but it did bring me up quite sharply as I questioned why I was reacting like this.

I guess Holly was a product of her background and the time she grew up in, when women didn’t have the freedoms they have now, and had to depend more on men (and specifically men with money) to scrape together a life of their own. But something still grated. Oddly, as my teeth were grinding, I recalled my reaction to the title character in another of my Book Diaries books: Rebecca.

Back then I was aware that we were probably meant to relate more to the feisty dead first wife than to her mousy replacement – but I didn’t. I did wonder at the time whether I was somehow ripping up every advance feminism had ever made, with my desire for a quiet life, and to hell with the parties and the staking of claims and the loud assertions of my rightful place in the world.

And it’s happened again with Breakfast at Tiffany’s: that disturbing feeling that I’ve somehow let down womankind by wrinkling my nose at this model of desire and attraction, whom everyone in the world apart from me seems to love. But this time there is a difference. Rebecca was written by a woman – Daphne du Maurier – and Holly Golightly has been written by a man: Truman Capote. And I started to wonder whether Holly is a male fantasy; in other words, she appeals more to men than to women.

I really don’t know, and unless I embark on a serious study of the characters and themes and psychosocial explorations in these two books, I probably never will. But I did become more acutely aware that most of the books I’ve read for the Book Diaries have been written by what might disparagingly be called ‘old white men’. And this has given me a fresh kick up the behind for selecting my theme for next year.

I’m not going to reveal it just yet, but I’ve settled on my choice and will be announcing it in due course. And I’ll likely need input from others when it comes to picking my 24 books… so keep your eyes peeled and you could really help me out!

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

This is going to seem fairly prosaic after the above insights into my soul, but the one image that I can’t shake from my mind after reading this book is that of a giant bird cage. The narrator sees it in the window of an antique shop, and Holly buys it for him as a gift. This (rather embarrassingly, given my earlier comments about monetary acquisitiveness) reminds me of an ornamental bird cage that I saw in a shop a couple of months ago and failed to buy for myself – and now keep wishing I had. (It was designed for candles rather than birds, but still…)

So the thing I’m going to do, to turn this less-than-admirable hankering into something good, is to focus instead on the presents I buy for other people. As I don’t live near my family, I’m guilty of not getting them gifts at the time of their birthday, instead saying ‘I’ll get you something I can bring you in person, and I’ll come and visit’ – and then never visiting. There must be all sorts of things that I could buy and put in the post – but I always end up delaying, and then having to ‘double up’ at Christmas to make up for it.

This is a terrible habit, so I’m going to promise, here and now, that I will change. I will buy presents for my family at the time of their birthday, and will either post the gifts on time or make a real effort to visit.

A musical interlude

This song by Kirsty MacColl popped into my head as I was mulling over my reaction to Holly Golightly. The interesting thing about a literary character is that you don’t know what happens to them after the events of the book – but this describes the kind of life I can imagine her having in her later, less attractive years.

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men

Title: Of Mice and Men
Author: John Steinbeck
Publication date: 1937
Genre: Novella

What’s it about?Of Mice and Men

George and Lennie, two migrant workers during America’s Great Depression, start work at a ranch and dream of earning enough to buy a homestead of their own. However, Lennie soon gets into trouble, and it is up to George to find a solution to their problems once and for all.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was another one from the university library, probably picked up en route to the latest Calon Talks Books show…

What did I learn from it?

When I started this book challenge way back in January 2015, the aim was for me to incorporate reading into my daily life again, in the same way I used to read so avidly when I was younger. I decided to give myself practical reasons for picking up a book, so that it didn’t feel quite as much of an indulgence – and I’ve certainly read more in the last 15 months than at any other point in recent years.

However, I still can’t quite say I’ve got back into the reading habit. They say that work expands to fill the time available; and I’m beginning to think that, for me, ‘not reading’ also expands to fill the time. Although I chose shorter books this year in the hope I’d get through them more quickly (and have more time left for others), it’s merely resulted in my postponing my reading, in the knowledge that it won’t take me very long when I do get round to it.

In other words, instead of granting myself more time for extra reading, I’m simply filling that time with other things. It’s not all bad – it’s still creative stuff – but I seem to have learned the very important lesson that old habits are hard to break. Giving up on action and settling into the leisurely life of a bookworm doesn’t appear to be on the cards for me any time soon.

How did it make me see the world differently?

There were two main things I took away with me from this book. Firstly, as I reached the last few pages, I was astounded to see similarities with an episode of one of my favourite TV programmes: The Walking Dead. The episode ‘The Grove’ originally aired in March 2014, and although back then I wasn’t in the habit of trawling social media for updates on my favourite shows, it seems that a lot of WD fans had instantly spotted the connection with Steinbeck’s book and were happily chatting about it.

This realisation reminded me of why I love sci-fi and fantasy and will defend it against charges of ‘unreality’, ‘escapism’ and the like. It’s just as possible for a SFF story to deal in themes as meaty as any covered in serious literature; it will simply have its own take on it. Whether you’re looking at a mentally troubled young girl in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, or a mentally challenged adult man on a farm, the individuals’ problems, reactions, thoughts, feelings and desires are what the story is about. The setting is almost incidental, or serves to illustrate the theme being played out.

The second thing I brought away from the book was the sense that throwing in your lot with other human beings is the only way to stay sane in this world. George and Lennie, although very different and seemingly odd companions, are able to cope with an itinerant life better than men who go it alone, because they have each other to look out for. Indeed, not only do they keep each other going, but their dream of having their own farm seeps out and gradually infects other workers on the ranch, who, in turn, start to hope and dream a little more for themselves.

We don’t need a zombie apocalypse to realise the value of human companionship. However independent we may be, and however other people’s personalities and habits may drive us mad at times, we still need them.

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

Two things, based on the above observations:

  1. For ages I’ve been meaning to do a bit more blogging on sci-fi and fantasy, specifically about the connections I see between stories, real-life themes played out in alternative universes, and essentially why it is a valuable genre that has much to offer anyone looking to change their life. So I’m going to try to set aside some time to do a bit more reading and reflecting in this area, with a view to blogging once a month, at least to start with. (I’m hoping this might also fix my earlier problem of ‘still not reading much’…!)
  2. As an introvert, I’m not very good at going out to see people and make those human connections. Now that I work from home I don’t have in-person work relationships (but that’s OK); I’ve also quit my am dram group to pursue more solitary activities (which is also OK). However, both these things have left a human-sized hole in my life, which, even as an introvert, I need to fill. So I’m going to seek out some people I haven’t seen in a while, and try to get a few visits in, just as many as I need to feel connected again without overwhelming myself socially. (And then, when the zombie apocalypse comes, I’ll have a band of comrades to team up with. Result!)

A musical interlude

Initially I struggled to think of a song that resonated with me for this one. No songs about mice, or even rabbits, came to mind. So then I broadened my thinking to the general theme of the book, and lo and behold! this one popped into my head…