“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
– Harlan Ellison
Books are like people. In order for a person to have a profound affect on your life, you need to meet that person at the right time. Met someone when you’re not ready and the whole relationship fizzles.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach is a story I first met too soon. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old as I recall, and I didn’t much care for the book or the movie. If I remember correctly, I don’t think I even watched the entire movie or read the whole book. It was too weird. Too strange. Too existential. I didn’t remotely understand it. Raised in a Roman Catholic gradeschool, I had already been brainwashed by years of lies that Judeo-Christian mythology was historical fact. Programmed by Abrahamic dogma in those formative years to worship a semitic zombie vampire, my psyche had been fed so much imbecilic propaganda, I foolhardily believed in burning bushes which talked to God’s Chosen Master Race. But a tale of talking seagulls? That was crazy! I couldn’t follow the story at all.
The book is very brief. It hardly qualifies as a novella. At less than 9000 words it’s barely a short story. Jonathan Livingston Seagull tells the tale of a seagull who lives with a mundane flock of birds while yearning for a more meaningful life.
During the course of the story, he learns and grows and evolves until he finally returns to his flock and is lauded as a messiah – a label he does not desire nor deserve.
The metaphors and lessons are all very obvious ones:
- Make your dreams come true.
- Disobey the flock.
- Trust your heart.
- Be careful of what people turn you into.
When I discovered the book again, at the age of 20, my entire perspective had shifted. I finally understood that every single theism on earth was followed by delusional self-righteous assholes who arrogantly presume they alone are the sole purveyors of truth. Now the book spoke to me. Now it made more sense. Now I was old enough to fall in love.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull not only changed my life, it changed the life of the author. Jonathan Livingston Seagull made Richard Bach a multimillionaire and a household name.
Why did it finally speak to me?
There was a day in my life, I recall very clearly, that was a turning point for me.
I went for a hike in the woods at Nelsons Ledges in Ohio when I was about 14 years old. At the time, my mother lived about 2 miles away from the park. During the 2 mile walk back to her house, I had a true existential moment. You know that part in the book Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, when he realizes he’s alive for the first time. That’s what happened to me on that walk. That was my first moment of really seeing with clarity how vibrant and alive and astonishing it was to be a sentient soul experiencing the world. I noticed everything that day. The crunch of gravel on the road underfoot. The luminous saturation of color in fields and the sky, everything so vivid it was like awakening from a dream.
And perhaps that metaphor is accurate. Because I finally began to shake off the oppressive mantle of manmade religion on that walk. I finally saw that no human being on the face of this earth has ever possessed any authority to tell me my place in the universe. I came to realize that every person on earth who dared to preach and demand my relationship with God be the same as theirs was a fucking demon. Every religion that zombiefied their zealots into thinking they were better than others, or above others, or chosen in the eyes of God to be somehow superior to others, was a nothing more than a deathcult of pure and unadulterated evil. That’s when I realized that all these “believers” were victims of something ghastly. Out there on that road, among those fields, I finally saw the universe for what it was. Beautiful. Idyllic. Flawless. Impassive. The consciousness of all divine light was manifested only through my own sentience. We all stand as the conduits of God. No one has the power to define that for you.
I decided in that moment, that to find my place in the universe, I would spend more time among the country roads and the beaches and the gentle streams of woodlands. For if there were a voice of the universe, that is where it would speak to me. Not through other people or churches or synagogues or clerics or shamans. I would study no religion. I would embrace no philosophy. For I didn’t want to be tainted by the beliefs of others. I wanted no one to influence me. The only way to discover this path was to do it on my own.
So I did. I spent many years working out my own philosophy of how the world worked. What felt true to my heart. What my instincts gravitated towards. For if there were a benevolent divine force within nature, then it stands to reason that I would have to find her. Were I to seek her with an open and innocent heart, she wouldn’t leave me to flounder in chaos. The only possible destinations were truth or self-deception, but at least the possible delusions would be my own, not the force-fed dogma of others.
In time, I did find my truths, even if they were quantified against nothing more than my own moral compass. I never wrote any of this down. I just kept it in my head. My outlooks. My beliefs. My philosophies.
Then, in a few years, I stumbled into Richard Bach. I was in a bookstore, looking for a birthday present for a friend. She was having a bit of a spiritual crisis in her life and I saw Jonathan Livingston Seagull on the shelf and I vaguely remembered it was supposed to be some uplifting hippie metaphysical hogwash. I figured, since my friend was so distraught, that might be good for her. So I bought it.
When I got it home, I read it for myself and finished it in about 30 minutes. Immediately after I finished reading, I went right back to the bookstore and bought another copy for myself.
I was astonished. Here was a book that articulated the spiritual sensibilities I had already discovered. All these weird and crazy ideas I had, things I never heard anyone else talk about, were all in that book. Up until that point, I thought I was all alone. I had no idea that anyone else in the world had started to view life the way I saw it.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull helped to validate many of my opinions about the nature of the human spirit.
Perhaps everything I believe is completely wrong. Perhaps I’m entirely off base and the outlook of Jonathan Livingston Seagull really is a load of crap.
When all is said and done, and our brief time here is over, discovering the truth doesn’t really make any difference.
Soaring on seagull wings you finally see that the Goddess herself is free to be an agnostic, because nothing else matters beyond the simple glory of love and living. The overwhelming beauty and awe of the now can never be diminished. Within that thrill of knowing you are alive, of feeling it to your very core, being more awake and cognizant than you have ever been, you are living in Heaven on earth. You soar with angel wings to transcend all the deception.
In the instant of knowing I was truly alive, in that realization of our transient spark shining and extinguishing, suspended in that second is where I found everlasting life.
Reading a book like Jonathan Livingston Seagull will remind you of that moment everytime you pick it up.
“Richard Bach with this book does two things. He gives me flight. He makes me young.”
– Ray Bradbury