Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written by Richard Bach, is a fable in novella form about a seagull learning about life and flight, and a homily about self-perfection. First published in 1970 as "Jonathan Livingston Seagull — a story", it became a favorite throughout the United States. By the end of 1972, over a million copies were in print, Reader's Digest had published a condensed version, and the book reached the top of the New York Times Best Seller list where it remained for 38 weeks. In 1972 and 1973 the book topped the Publishers Weekly list of bestselling novels in the United States. It is still in print as of 2008.
The novel tells the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a bird living at sea (seagull) who is bored with the daily squabbles over food and seized by a passion for flight. He pushes himself, learning everything he can about flying, until finally his unwillingness to conform results in his expulsion from his flock. An outcast
, he continues to learn, becoming increasingly pleased with his abilities as he leads an idyllic life.
One day, Jonathan is met by two gulls who take him to a "higher plane of existence" (reminiscent of the beliefs of Chinese, in that there is no heaven but a better world found through perfection of knowledge), where he meets other gulls who love to fly. He discovers that his sheer tenacity and desire to learn make him "a gull in a million". Jonathan befriends the wisest gull in this new place, named Chiang, who takes him beyond his previous learning, teaching him how to move instantaneously to anywhere else in the universe. The secret, Chiang says, is to "begin by knowing that you have already arrived".
Not satisfied with his new life, Jonathan returns to Earth to find others like him, to bring them his learning and to spread his love for flight. His mission is successful, gathering around him others who have been outlawed for not conforming. Ultimately, one of his students, Fletcher Lynd Seagull, becomes a teacher in his own right and Jonathan leaves to continue his learning.
Part one of the book finds young Jonathan Livingston frustrated with the meaningless materialism and conformity and limitation of the seagull life. He is seized with a passion for flight of all kinds, and his soul soars as he experiments with exhilarating challenges of daring and triumphant aerial feats. Eventually, his lack of conformity to the limited seagull life leads him into conflict with his flock, and they turn their backs on him. He becomes an outcast. Not deterred by this, Jonathan continues his efforts to reach higher and higher flight goals, finding he is often successful but eventually he can fly no higher. He is then met by two radiant, loving seagulls who explain to him that he has learned much, and that they are there now to teach him more. He follows them.
In the second Part, Jonathan transcends into another society where all the gulls enjoy flying. He is only capable of this after practicing hard alone for a long time (described in the first part). In this other society, real respect emerges as a contrast of the coercive force that was keeping the former "Breakfast Flock" together. The learning process, linking the highly experienced teacher and the diligent student, is raised into almost sacred level, suggesting that this may be the true relation between human and God. The author surely thinks that human and God, regardless of the all immense difference, are sharing something of great importance that can bind them together: "you've got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull." He realizes that you have to be true to yourself.
The introduction to the third part of the book is the last words of Jonathan's teacher: "keep working on love." In this part Jonathan understands that the spirit cannot be really free without the ability to forgive, and the way to progress leads through becoming a teacher — not just through working hard as a student. Jonathan returns to the Breakfast Flock to share his newly discovered ideals and the recent tremendous experience, ready for the difficult fight against the current rules of that society. The ability to forgive seems to be a mandatory "passing condition."
"Do you want to fly so much that you will forgive the Flock, and learn, and go back to them one day and work to help them know?" Jonathan asks his first student before getting into any further talks. The idea that the stronger can reach more by leaving the weaker friends behind seems totally rejected.
Hence, love, deserved respect, and forgiveness seem to be equally important to the freedom from the pressure to obey the rules just because they are commonly accepted.
Some critical responses
Several early commentators, emphasizing the first Part of the book, see it as part of the US self-help and positive thinking culture, epitomised by Norman Vincent Peale and by the New Thought movement. Some have described it as having Christian-anarchist characteristics. It has also been compared to the children's tale The Little Engine That Could.
In 1972, before "postmodernism" had evolved from an architectural term into a cultural buzzword, Beverley Byrne noted,
- "No matter what metaphysical minority the reader may find seductive, there is something for him in Jonathan Livingston Seagull. [...] the dialogue is a mishmash of Boy Scout/Kahlil Gibran. The narrative is poor man's Hermann Hesse; the plot is Horatio Alger doing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The meanings, metaphysical and other, are a linty overlay of folk tale, old movies, Christian tradition, Protestantism, Christian Science, Greek and Chinese philosophies, and the spirits of Sports Illustrated and Outward Bound [...] This seagull is an athletic Siddharta tripping on Similac, spouting the Qur'an as translated by Bob Dylan [...] One hopes this is not the parable for our time, popular as it is — the swift image, all-meaning metaphor that opens up into almost nothing."
Adaptations and appearances in other media
Adaptations in film, dance, music, etc.
- Film: The novella inspired the production of a motion picture of the same title, with a soundtrack by Neil Diamond. The film was made by Hall Bartlett many years before computer-generated effects were available. In order to make seagulls act on cue and perform aerobatics, Mark Smith of Escondido, California built radio-controlled gliders that looked remarkably like real seagulls from a few feet away. Bach was so unimpressed with the treatment of the film that he sued the film company for negligence. Critics blasted the film, calling it "for the birds." Previously only available on VHS, it was released on DVD in October 2007.
- Ballet: A ballet based on Jonathan Livingston Seagull, was choreographed by Ananda Shankar Jayant.
- Audiobook: The Irish actor Richard Harris won a Grammy in 1973 for the audiobook LP Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
- Parody novels:
- Parody cartoon:
- One of cartoons from Masyanya series (part 14, cartoon 6) is called Jonathan Khryundelson Sparrow («Воробей по имени Джонатан Хрюндельсон») and shows a sparrow who wanted to learn to swim; finally, he manages to teach swimming his whole flock - but himself.
- Jonathan Seagull is mentioned in the James Gang song "Ride the Wind".
- MC Paul Barman includes a nod to the seagull in his lyrics from "Excuse You" ("I keep it more gully than Jonathan Livingston").
- It has been said that Swedish pop group ABBA's 1977 song "Eagle" was partially inspired by Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
- Canadian singer-songwriter Danny Michel wrote a song about Jonathan Livingston Seagull called "Jonathan Gull" on his 2001 album, In the Belly of a Whale.
- Korean rock group Cherry Filter wrote a song called "Jonathan the Seagull".
- Korean hip-hop artist MC Mong wrote a song, "Jonathan (갈매기의 꿈 [A Seagull's Dream]}".
- Vancouver indie band The Neins Circa have a song written by Cameron Dilworth called "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" from their 2004 album Sunday Anthems.
- British group Barclay James Harvest wrote a song "Jonathan" on their 1975 album Time Honoured Ghosts
- Shui On Group, a large property group based in Hong Kong, uses Jonathan the Seagull as their company motto and logo because the Group's Founder Vincent Lo was inspired by the story.
Appearances in popular culture
- It is stated that Mike Score of A Flock Of Seagulls was very taken by the book and is part of the reason the band's name became A Flock Of Seagulls.
- In an episode of Family Guy the book is seen on Quagmire's nightstand.
- Also featured in the 1995 film The Brady Bunch Movie as Mike Brady's bedtime reading.
- In an episode of Moonlighting when David Addison first meets Maddie Hayes, he guesses her favorite movie is Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
- In the 2004 novel Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Adrian's father claims that once you read the book, no other book can ever compare. His father has yet to read a book since and gets emotional talking about the seagull.
- In The Simpsons, Captain McCallister is heard uttering the name, as a type of exclamation, in the episode El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer).
- In an episode of That '70s Show, while Bob and Midge are dining with Red and Kitty, a drunken Midge overacts a scene from the novella.
- In Part 7 of The Bronx Is Burning (2007), Reggie Jackson, who is played by Daniel Sunjata, is seen reading the book in the locker room after playing in the 1977 World Series.
- In an episode of Ask A Ninja, A Ninja refers to the book while telling the tale of why thr33 is the magic number.
- In the movie The Party at Kitty and Stud's, a seagull is seen while Kitty is meditating. Being made in 1970, the image is a clear homage to the popular book.