Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970)
The only true law is that which leads to freedom
Flashback: Sixth Grade. Miss Bock's class. Former nun. Pretty strict but very nice. One day when it was a little loud as we changed classes in our inner city school, she yelled at us; "At East orange high School they may all be shooting heroin in the bathroom but at least it's quite in the hallways!" Our assignment--read a book and build a diorama. You remember dioramas don't you? You take a shoe box, some construction paper & some glue and you build a little scene inside of the box. Let's put it this way, I'm firmly convinced that my wife only wanted to have kids so that she could one day build dioramas with them.
I, on the other hand, had no interest then, nor any now, in such projects. Racing through my fevered eleven year old's brain went various schemes and dodges to get out from under this burden. Sadly I did not have the kind of parents who were embarrassed by having me turn in woefully inadequate projects. Remember when your Cub Scout troop did Pinewood Derby and there were always those kids whose Dads had clearly built their car? In our troop we actually had two kids whose dads were Shop Teachers. The Derby cars they brought in could have been sold in stores. Meanwhile, my Father told me it would be a good learning experience if I built my own. The predictable result was that I produced this misshapen, day-glo green, bricklike car with the wheels accidentally glued into immobility. Suffice it to say, I was no challenge to the shop brats, but I did learn something: cheaters win. Absent any illicit parental assistance and devoid of the requisite personal motivation, I needed a really easy book and an extremely basic diorama scene. Thank you Richard Bach!
I read mega-bestselling Jonathan Livingston Seagull--all of 127 pages with copious numbers of photographs. Then I took some blue construction paper and glued it into the bottom of the box, cut out the picture of a seagull from the cover of the book and glued it onto the blue background. Voila! Five minutes, project done. As you might intuit, Miss Bock was significantly less impressed by my ingenuity than I was. As I recall she took inordinate and sadistic pleasure in comparing my box to Mark Caldwell's Call of the Wild action scene, which included trees, snow, a moving dog and a little view portal like a binocular lens through which you viewed the scene.
Returning to this book now, I feel compelled to defend my vision. The story of the book is almost ridiculously simple. A young seagull wants to learn to fly better. The elders of his flock inform him in no uncertain terms that a seagull only needs to fly well enough to feed himself, that flying is not the point of being a seagull. But Jonathan rebels against the proscribed ambitions of the other gulls; he yearns to explore the boundaries of flight. As he continues to test these limits, the Flock expels him, but eventually a group of younger gulls join him in his quest and together they transcend their seagullness. The message of the book is perhaps best expressed in the epigraph above and in a conversation between Jonathan and Elder Chiang:
"Chiang, this world isn't heaven at all, is it?"
The Elder smiled in the moonlight. "You are learning again, Jonathan Seagull," he said.
"Well what happens from here? Where are we going? Is there no such place as heaven?"
"No, Jonathan, there is no such place. Heaven
is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being
This dual message about freedom and the pursuit of perfection is simple but classic. In his own way, Jonathan fits easily within the mainstream of American Literature with heroes like Huck Finn (see Orrin's review), RP McMurphy (see Orrin's review), Cool Hand Luke and the rest. His quest to escape the limits accepted by the Flock is the quintessential quest of Western Man. And what image expresses Bach's allegorical notion better than a solitary seagull soaring? In retrospect, I think I deserved an A.
This book is not particularly profound. It is sufficiently ambiguous that different readers will focus on different aspects of the story and take away different messages. But there is something undeniably compelling about Bach's fundamental faith in the individual. It is an especially appropriate book for teens and even adolescents, but adults looking to kill an hour will enjoy it too. Heck, if you and your kid read it, you can build a diorama together afterwards.
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd