The Books: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (Richard Bach)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

JONATHAN.jpgJonathan Livingston Seagull – by Richard Bach.

Oh boy. We’re moving into Richard Bach land. I have a complicated long-term relationship with Richard Bach. And for those of you who are new to me – I wrote this whole series of essays on soulmates. There’s actually more to be said on this topic – but I shy away from it, because it’s a loaded issue for me – but whatevs, it’s also VERY interesting.

If you’re into it, here are my soulmates posts:

Soulmates: An Overview (check out the comment to that post from “JLS” – uhm – Jonathan Livingston Seagull commented on my post. And check out its snotty tone which completely proved my own point about the whole soulmates industry)

Soulmates: An Introduction to Richard Bach

Soulmates: The Timeline

And now – a small tangent about my blog: One of the issues I have with the way some people comment on blogs – not all – SOME (especially those who spend most of their time reading political blogs, and then come to visit me … they bring that judgey rigid tone HERE – it’s like that’s the only way they know how to speak, even though I’m posting about Mae West and not the Republican fucking debates – but still, it doesn’t matter: they are in the habit of being positional, judgmental, and rigid – where I am so not interested in having that type of black and white conversation – even if I DID post about politics – that tone ruins everything. I don’t read blogs who have that tone, and I don’t want that spill-over here) To be fair, people who are consistently judgey and rigid don’t last long here. I don’t tolerate it, because it ruins my fun. But still: it happens on occasion. Anyway – one of the issues I have with that kind of commenter is that it makes for a boring conversation. It’s too positional. As in: Richard Bach = BAD. And people who love Richard Bach = STUPID. And that misses my point. I’m not interested in having a political-type audience, who can only take positions on things, who are only in opposition, etc. Whose main attitude appears to be: “What in the hell is wrong with everybody else except me?? Why can’t everybody be as smart as I am??” You know the type. Yawn. Also: it seems to be that that type of attitude is geared towards ENDING conversation, rather than continuing it. I’m all about the talk, and the conversation. Even with strong opinions – it is a hope of mine that we can still continue to TALK about things. But “what is wrong with everyone? Such and such is BAD and that’s final” is not intelligent, and not a continuation of anything. No place for that here.

So when I “take on” Richard Bach – I do so from the stance of having been an enormous fan of his stuff at one point. I do so from the position of having once loved him, and looked to him for answers. I don’t anymore – but I also don’t roll my eyes at my younger self for having been into him. And I don’t roll my eyes at those who still think he’s an inspiration. I would hope that people could express themselves about it without being snotty, like JLS – because it is a very interesting topic, and touches on things that are very personal for many of us. Is there only ONE person out there for everybody? Can you have MULTIPLE soulmates? Etc. I am not interested in a kneejerk response to those questions. I prefer contemplation, discussion, back and forth … I am saying this because Bach is a sensitive subject and people take him personally. That’s totally cool – so did I. I have changed my mind, drastically. That’s what my soulmate essays are about. There’s quite a bit about his stuff that I still love. I love his writing, in general. (Read the essays. All the background is there).

I think the first book I read of his was Illusions – and I came back to Jonathan Livingston Seagull later. You can read it in about 20 minutes. It was his first major book – he had been writing articles and essays on flying for many years. He was a barnstormer, a pilot – and his writing on aviation is phenomenal. Not as good as St. Ex … but you can feel that St. Ex is his guiding star. He writes about flight like that. Marvelous. So in Jonathan Livingston Seagull – he goes into the realm of metaphor. All of his themes: breaking through barriers, mind over matter, standing alone, being ahead of the crowd, or unafraid of being different – it’s all here.

Here’s an excerpt. And interesting – I chose this excerpt because of my strong reaction to it this morning. It makes me realize that I should probably re-open the soulmates conversation again. I am not done with Richard Bach. Not by a long shot. I still have a bone to pick with that man.

But what’s interesting to me: is how I USED to look at him, how I USED to read him. I thought he had the key. I looked to him. And now – reading this excerpt – what I see is his flaws, his humanity – his fears – and you know what? That makes him even more interesting to me.

He wants to transcend being human. I relate to that wish. Sometimes I want that myself. But he doesn’t seem quite aware of his own avoidance techniques, his own desire to feel nothing, to be ABOVE others ….

This is all very interesting because of his experiences as a pilot – that very specific perspective of being far above the earth, looking down.

And yet old habits die hard. The line “keep working on love” makes me want to weep. My response to Richard Bach is so primal that it borders on muscle memory. Some kind of sensoral memory. Intellectually, I am pissed at him. But when he comes out with a line like “keep working on love” … I fall in love with him again.


Excerpt from Jonathan Livingston Seagull – by Richard Bach.

A month went by, or something that felt about like a month, and Jonathan learned at a tremendous rate. He always had learned quickly from ordinary experience, and now, the special student of the Elder Himself, he took in new ideas like a streamlined feathered computer.

But then the day came that Chiang vanished. He had been talking quietly with them all, exhorting them never to stop their learning and their practicing and their striving to understand more of the perfect invisible principle of all life. Then, as he spoke, his feathers went brighter and brighter and at last turned so brilliant that no gull could look upon him.

“Jonathan,” he said, and these were the last words that he spoke, “keep working on love.”

When they could see again, Chiang was gone.

As the days went past, Jonathan found himself thinking time and again of the Earth from which he had come. If he had known there just a tenth, just a hundredth, of what he knew here, how much more life would have meant! He stood on the sand and fell to wondering if there was a gull back there who might be struggling to break out of his limits, to see the meaning of flight beyond a way of travel to get a breadcrumb from a rowboat. Perhaps there might even have been one made Outcast for speaking his truth in the fact of the Flock. And the more Jonathan practiced his kindness lessons, and the more he worked to know the nature of love, the more he wanted to go back to Earth. For in spite of his lonely past, Jonathan Seagull was born to be an instructor, and his own way of demonstrating love was to give something of the truth that he had seen to a gull who asked only a chance to see truth for himself.

Sullivan, adept now at thought-speed flight and helping the others to learn, was doubtful.

“Jon, you were Outcast once. Why do you think that any of the gulls in your old time would listen to you now? You know the proverb, and it’s true: The gull sees farthest who flies highest. Those gulls where you came from are standing on the ground, squawking and fighting among themselves. They’re a thousand miles from heaven – and you say you want to show them heaven from where they stand! Jon, they can’t see their own wingtips! Stay here. Help the new gulls here, the ones who are high enough to see what you have to tell them.” He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “What if Chiang had gone back to his old worlds? Where would you have been today?”

The last point was the telling one, and Sullivan was right. The gull sees farthest who flies highest.

Jonathan stayed and worked with the new birds coming in, who were all very bright and quick with their lessons. But the old feeling came back, and he couldn’t help but think that there might be one or two gulls back on Earth who would be able to learn, too. How much more would he have known by now if Chiang had come to him on the day that he was Outcast!

“Sully, I must go back,” he said at last. “Your students are doing well. They can help you bring the newcomers along.”

Sullivan sighed, but he did not argue. “I think I’ll miss you, Jonathan,” was all he said.

“Sully, for shame!” Jonathan said in reproach, “and don’t be foolish! What are we trying to practice every day? If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we’ve destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don’t you think that we might see each other once or twice?”

Sullivan Seagull laughed in spite of himself. “You crazy bird!” he said kindly. “If anybody can show someone on the ground how to see a thousand miles, it will be Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” He looked at the sand. “Good-bye, Jon, my friend.”

“Good-bye, Sully. We’ll meet again.” And with that, Jonathan held in thought an image of the great gull-flocks on the shore of another time, and he knew with practiced ease that he was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all.

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32 Responses to The Books: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” (Richard Bach)

  1. ricki says:

    I read JLS as a…gosh, I think I was 12…and while I was moved by it, I also have to admit I found it confusing…it was like I kept going, “There’s something here…everything has to symbolize something – he’s trying to tell a bigger story” (I had an English teacher that year who was bent on the whole “squeeze every drop of allusion and allegory out of a book and stick it into your essays.” Which, you know? Sometimes kind of ruins the reading of a book for me. I like for some things to remain a little mysterious).

    The funny thing is, now that you mention the book, I can remember how and where I read it – sitting on my parents’ front porch in the summer (and I mean, sitting right on the porch – we had a very small porch, it was that sandy kind of cement, and there wasn’t any room for a chair or anything but I wanted to be OUTSIDE to read so I sat right on the porch. I still remember how my legs got all scratched up from the porch because I was wearing shorts)

    It is interesting to go back and look at writers who made a big impact on you, but who don’t seem to do the same upon re-reading. Or about whom you change your attitude.

    I couldn’t make it through “Catcher in the Rye” again as an adult – but at 15, I was kind of obsessed by the book.

    (It’s also interesting to find a writer who speaks as much – or more – to one on later re-reading. Can’t think of any off the top of my head right now – maybe Tolkein is one, I read his stuff “for the stories” as a child, and now I see more of the not-exactly-allegory of it).

    And you knowwhat, also? Personally, I’d RATHER hear about Mae West than the Republican debate. (Or a Democratic debate for that matter).

  2. red says:

    ricki – your comment on re-reading authors is really interesting!! Very true.

    I re-read Bach after my bitter experience with “soulmates” in my late 20s – and almost wanted to throw the book across the room.

    And yet – in college and my early 20s, these books were everything to me! I stood in line for hours to have him sign my copy of Illusions, etc. etc. So there is definitely something there that still speaks to me. But I’m cynical now. Sadly. I think I’ve gained something with my cynicism – but something certainly has been lost as well.

    I love that you remember just where you were when you read JLS!!

    Did you read any of his other books?

    His compilations of flying writing are really wonderful – and definitely hold up. Because he’s not setting forth a theory of soulmates – he’s just writing about the joy of flight – and they are so wonderful!

  3. ricki says:

    I tried to read Bridge Across Forever but I think I was a little young for it; it kind of scared me.

    And I’m cynical about the whole “soulmates” thing. I’m really happy for people who find someone that they love and want to spend the rest of their lives with, but the problem is, so often that then turns into “Let’s pity the people who don’t have this wonderful thing” and then into “Why aren’t you working harder to find your soulmate?”

    Years and years ago I saw a greeting card that I loved; it said something like

    “Everyone on earth has someone who was put there specially for them”

    and on the inside:

    “Yours is a 12-year-old cowherder living in India.”

    I think I remembered that – and still love it so much – because I was totally in a time where I believed that somehow some evil cosmic joke had been played on me, because it seemed like everyone had a “soulmate” but me.

    (The fact that Bach divorced – no, “graduated” from – his wife would have given me great schadenfreude at that time.)

  4. red says:

    “Yours is a 12-year-old cowherder living in India.”


  5. Paul says:

    You might enjoy a book by his son Jonathan [named after the book actually] called ‘Above the clouds’. The son writes about trying to figure out his connection with his dad – who left when when he was quite young. You get an interesting view of Richard – a little less idealized than what comes across in his own books [definitely not character assasination tho].

    I was a big fan of his for a long time too, but no so much anymore. He paints this wonderful abstract, idealized picture that somehow misses the whole point – the messy, unordered details of life. He tries to tidy everything into a nice little box, when really the unexpected and uncategorized stuff is the part of living that matters. I grew less enchanted with him as I gradually figured that out for myself.

    The last book of his I read was ‘out of my mind’. It made me really sad. It was very well-crafted, but completely ungrounded, lacking connection with anything real. And it was also lacking the ‘spark’ that his writing always had for me. I certainly hope the best for him, but that book left me with the wierd feeling he had really lost himself.

  6. red says:

    Paul – wow … your words on his last book really struck me. I haven’t read it – I gave up on Bach after “Running From Safety” (which I actually still really like). I just got sick of the whole Bach thing. I was mad at him. hahaha

    Out of my mind, huh? I think I’m gonna have to check it out, just because your comment is so interesting about it.

  7. mitch says:

    To be fair, people who are consistently judgey and rigid don’t last long here.

    Hey! I’ve been toughing it out for 3-4 years!

    (But your stuff on “soulmates” is just about the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject)

  8. red says:

    But you rarely comment, mitch. And when you do – it’s always humorous, non-judgey, and it always ADDS to the conversation.

    I don’t care about what’s secretly in people’s hearts. I can’t care about that. All I can try to control is how people behave on my site. You behave. I like you, and I like how you behave when you’re on my turf.

    If you commented constantly with rigid judgey stupid comments that are meant to dominate me, and hijack my nice bohemian conversation I’ve got going on here, I’d ban your ass. It’s very simple.

  9. red says:

    Or actually, I should say: I don’t care how rigid and judgmental people are, openly or otherwise. When you come here? You must be able to segue into the type of conversation I want to have.

    You either are able to segue or you don’t comment.

    That works for me.

  10. red says:

    Back on topic. I hate bitching about the rigid losers who sneer at me on my own blog.

    Mitch – have you read any of Bach’s soulmate stuff? Bridge Across Forever??

    Like I said before: his couple of books on his experiences as a pilot – in the army, as well as a freelancing barnstormer in the late 60s (amazing stories – he’d fly around the Midwest, land in random fields, set up a sign, and then take people up for 5 bucks a ride) … but anyway – those books, his books on flight – are beautiful! They border on poetry.

  11. Kate P says:

    Interesting! I had always seen the book on the little bookcase by the stairs in the house of this one family whose kids I babysat in high school, but had never picked it up. I wondered about it, but not much beyond, “Someone wrote a book about a seagull and it had a name?” Kind of associated it with James Herriot or something, I guess.

  12. red says:

    Kate – haha!! All Creatures Great and Small!

    In one of his later books (the big soulmate book Bridge Across Forever) he writes about Jonathan Livingston Seagull and what that book did for him. He had been living a completley itinerant life for many years – with a bedroll, a notebook, and his biplane – he would sell articles about flight to aviation magazines, and make a tiny living that way.

    At some point, his fascination with flight as a metaphor took over – and out came Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

    His editor found a publisher for it – even though people were mainly like: Duh, this is a weird book … (having no idea that they were about to launch an international phenomenon) …

    Meanwhile, Bach went back to barnstorming – and completely lost touch with civilization. He was also searching for “her” – meaning: the soulmate. Lonely years for him. This is pre cell phone, pre email … Months passed and evenutally he called in to his publisher who was like, “We have been trying to get in touch with you for months. Do you have any idea what has happened to your book???”

    Eventually Bach called his bank – the profits from Jonathan had been deposited for him. He wanted to find out his balance. The teller said to him, flatly, “You now have a bazillion dollars in the bank.” (Some outrageously high number.)

    Three months prior to that he had had maybe 800 bucks in the bank.

    Complete disorientation – huge fame – it put him on the map. And Bach is basically still there – after all these years. Quite amazing, actually.

  13. mitch says:

    Mitch – have you read any of Bach’s soulmate stuff? Bridge Across Forever??

    I’m passingly familiar. Haven’t read BAF. I dislike the term “soulmate” pretty intensely, and most of what it’s come to mean in, as you aptly call it, the industry.

    But Bach’s writing about flying IS wonderful.

    I never became either especially attached to nor crushingly disillusioned with Bach (I think JLS is the only book I’ve read from cover to cover), but know that he’s very talented, even though he’s not my usual fare.

  14. red says:

    Mitch – hahaha Yeah, with your feelings about the word “soulmate” you probably wouldn’t want to subject yourself to the books written by the dude mainly RESPONSIBLE for that malarkey.

    I mean – there’s actually some very helpful observations about relationships in those books – especially because I relate a lot to Bach – at least in the fact that he doesn’t live a conventional life, has issues with “settling down” and being domestic – and because of this, puts his romantic partners thru hell. He’s really honest about all that stuff.

    But when he gets into “the one” and “I found the one” – I start to see red. Mainly because I bought it, hook line and sinker. :)

  15. Lisa says:

    JLS takes me back to the days when parents had lives OUTSIDE of being parents. Remember then? And kids were not just unwelcome, but BANNED?

    In Parent World, there was always Neil Diamond and Roberta Flack playing in the background. White wine and California Onion Dip were served, and there was ALWAYS a copy of JLS on the coffee table, right next to a ceramic owl or something.

    I tried to read it once when I was about 8 or so, I guess, and gave up after, like, two pages. It was no Charlotte’s Web.

    (Also, in Parent World, usually if they had JLS, they also had that book of Rod McKuen poems where he talked about someone playing with his balls while slept. Ew. I looked at the book jacket of Rod McKuen, and he had a pedophilic air about him. I’d never play with his balls.)

  16. red says:

    Lisa, I’m dying with laughter.

    //In Parent World, there was always Neil Diamond and Roberta Flack playing in the background. White wine and California Onion Dip were served, and there was ALWAYS a copy of JLS on the coffee table, right next to a ceramic owl or something. //

    hahahaha You are so brilliant!!!

    Also, dammit – I totally know what you’re talking about with Rod McKuen – that is so hysterical. And disturbing.

  17. red says:

    Oh and yes to the “banning of children” memories. I remember being banned. We would sit at the top of the stairs, and listen to the uproar from downstairs as my parents played bridge with their friends. And smoked.

  18. Lisa says:

    We used to hide out upstairs too, CONVINCED they were discussing matters of great importance, like Watergate or something, but I bet it was just stuf like we talk about with OUR friends today, sex.


  19. red says:

    hahahaha Totally.

    I love the detail about the onion dip and the white wine.

    It’s such a generational thing, isn’t it?? Growing up in the 70s … we all know exactly what you are talking about.

    And Roberta Flack. hahahahaha

  20. red says:

    Lisa – your comment reminds me a little bit of this piece.

  21. Lisa says:

    “There was a big sex.”

    Bwahahahaaha! So true.

  22. red says:


    “Pass the wine, please. I want to become crazy.”

  23. Kate P says:

    Ha ha! That’s what I started thinking of, too, when Lisa said, “Parent World”!

  24. charlene says:

    This was really interesting! I read JLS a really long time ago and don’t remember much about it now, except for being dimly and vaguely annoyed by the part where JLS can teleport. Which I thought was both totally romantic and (several years later) cheating.

    Kind of like soulmates, I guess :) The soulmates part was really interesting… I don’t know how I missed those posts. My view is that the person you marry and spend the rest of your life with… it’s not because you’ve searched for each other in the mists of time, or because you click across a crowded room (though it can start like that), but because you make yourselves right for each other. Like, I didn’t even talk to my husband very much, or think about him really at all, the first entire year I knew him. And although I feel that he’s perfect for me now, I can totally imagine having married another guy and thinking he was perfect for me… but I’d be a very different person in that case.

    ricki– Someone said, I forget who, but I suspect it was Dave Barry, that it’s kind of amazing that there’s one perfect soulmate for everybody, who just happens to live nearby! And sometimes that person stops being the soulmate and someone else becomes the new soulmate, and that person also happens to live nearby!

  25. charlene says:

    oh, and p.s. I LOVE that your blog is all about NOT being strict and judgmental… I hate hate blogs like that!

  26. ricki says:

    LMAO about “parent world.” Good grief, I remember that – when all the kids were sent to bed early (or a babysitter was hired and they were stashed in the finished basement or sent over to the house of one of the people not hosting the party, or something.

    And how we all figured there was some big clandestine adult stuff being talked about, like it was so deep and so important.

    And now? When I get together with my friends (which is rare, because they all have little babies and little kids), the little babies and the little kids are RIGHT THERE, demanding the parents’ attention, and I’m all, “Umm…maybe I’ll come back in five or six years, okay?”

  27. ricki says:

    charlene, after reading your comment, I begin to think that maybe one of the troubling things about the whole “soulmate” concept is that it’s basically narcissistic – like, you are going to find the person who is PERFECT for you because, presumably, you are PERFECT for that person. That there will be no needed extra effort on your part, because everything will just be SO perfect because it is somehow pre-ordained that you and the other person will meet and fall in love.

    And in the real world (or at least what I’ve observed of it; I’m not married and haven’t even really dated very much so maybe I’m a bad judge), it seems much more that forging a relationship is sort of a dance between two people, and ongoing conversation of, “How do I need to change to accomodate this other person; how will they change for me. And how are we going to grow together over time?”

    Love is a lot of work. And I think a lot of people go into relationships not realizing that, or blinding themselves to that fact.

    And in reality – again, it seems to me – that the real beauty of a good relationship comes with the growth that the two people do in each other’s presence; that they grow together.

    The “soulmates” thing seems like kind of a static concept…and I think sets people up for disappointment because NO ONE is ever as perfect as you imagine them to be when you are in the first throes of infatuation.

  28. Ken says:

    I remember reading JLS while eating plain bologna sammiches (they had to be plain, I forget why) and celery stalks with juuuuust the right amount of salt on. And Pepsi. I was about 13, I reckon.

    In other news, I didn’t realize the Republicans were debating f…oh, forget it.

    Hey, if you’d (the editorial you) been wrassling with canonical correlations all day, you might have thought it was funny for about a second and a half too. :-P

  29. red says:

    ricki – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for me … it’s the whole concept of PERFECT that drives everyone insane – and makes the Love & Relationships sections of Barnes and Noble seem so psychotic if you look at it objectively. Perfection first of all is unattainable. But if it’s seen as attainable then all you can do is keep buying more books, and keep feeling like a loser because you haven’t found that “perfect” special someone.

    I also REALLY have a problem with the concept of ONE person that’s perfect for you. Yeah, well, I met that one person. And whenever I see him now (rarely, thank God) – he STILL seems perfect for me. (Not that he’s perfect, or I am – but the connection, the chemistry) And we’re not together and never will be.

    So …. what does THAT mean, Richard Bach?

    That I missed out? That was my one shot?

    Or … that wasn’t REALLY my soulmate?

    This is when Richard Bach would say to me something like “Everything happens for a reason” or “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime” and that is when I would punch him in his face.

    It’s too EASY. Like: sorry, here’s the deal: Relationships are hard. And sometimes there are huge costs. Sometimes there are people you never get over. Not completely. That’s just the reality. (For some of us.)

    I was so attracted to his soulmate books because I found them comforting, and they gave me hope (I wrote about that in the essays). But once I had experienced a couple of losses – stuff that impacted me not just for a couple of months, but forever – I realized that I needed to look elsewhere for inspiration.

    Like Paul said in his beautiful comment: there’s something abstract and idealized about Bach’s worldview – and it definitely has its uses. But once everything becomes a big ol’ MESS (as it did for me) – they lose their power.

  30. ricki says:

    not to hijack but:

    Ken – canonical correlations? Ugh. I feel your pain, man. I remember doing something similar in my dissertation research and feeling like my eyes were going to bug out of my head by the end of the day.

  31. charlene says:

    ricki– exactly! You said it much better than I could.

    It’s probably not a coincidence, either, that the romances I love most in books are exactly those that talk about this dance. Pride and Prejudice. Possession (kind of… it talks about so many different kinds of love, including the failure of love that is too rigid and static and can’t change, for whatever internal or external reason… I mean, come on, don’t you think Ash and Christabel are total soulmates?…) – The Perilous Gard. (which, sheila, is usually sold as fantasy, but it’s really not, and I think you might like it if you haven’t read it; it’s a YA book.)

  32. veronica says:

    Des Moines, Iowa, July 2 – John H. Livingston, the man who inspired the best-selling novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” died Sunday at the Pompano Beach (Fla.) Airport soon after completing his last plane ride.

    Richard Bach, a former Iowa Air Guard pilot, has said his best-selling book about a free-wheeling seagull was inspired by Mr. Livingston.

    Johnny Livingston, as he was known, moved many years ago from Iowa to Florida. He was one of the country’s top pilots during the barnstorming days of the nineteen-twenties and thirties.

    From 1928 through 1933, Mr. Livingston won 79 first places, 43 seconds and 15 thirds in 139 races throughout the country, many of them at Cleveland. He won first place and $13,910 in 1928 in a cross-country race from New York to Los Angeles.

    Mr. Livingston leaves his wife, Wavelle, two brothers and four sisters.

    – The New York Times, July 3, 1974

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