My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For once, here is a book I’m not quite decided about. Is it good, or is it a pile of shite? I’m dodging between 3 stars and 4 for this review but certain parts are more like a 2 and others up at 5. It’s a very confusing book.
And it always has been confusing – as has the reaction it has received from the strangest of people. I recall being introduced to the book by a mate in a pub in my youth. He and I would do Friday night pub crawls before we were legally allowed to. We’d start off at the Fox and Goose, nearest to me in my hometown of Coalville, Leicestershire. In the 80s it had a back room – restaurant-like before pubs really had the idea of restaurants. I think it was called ‘The Library’, and certainly it had genuine books lining the walls. It was a haven of quietness away from the rowdiness of the main pub. Even as a 16-year-old, I liked quiet pubs. And it was there that my mate pulled this book off the shelves and said ‘you’ve got to read this book’.
What made this odd was my friend was a Scottish, spit-and-sawdust kind of guy who left school at 16 and really didn’t rate learning or reading books. Yet he thought this strange philosophical story of a seagull called Jonathan who ends up leading a religious cult was the best thing ever. I recall flicking through the book which, it seemed, was 70% pages of weird photos of seagulls and very little actual text, and being rather bemused. Reading some of the text did nothing to persuade me this was anything other than freakishly weird.
So the book went back on the shelf, never to be spoken of again. Never to be given any notice of again despite occasionally coming up on ‘must read’ lists. Never to be even considered giving precious time to reading until recently when the book was mentioned on BBC Radio 4 in the oddest of ways.
I’m used to listening to the news first thing in the morning and, during that hour, they feature a maths problem of the day. Often those problems are set by Bobby Seagull – a well-known mathematician. One morning I was rather surprised to find the presenters chatting to him about his name, where it turns out that his father adored the book by Richard Bach and named Bobby after the title character. Later that same day I caught Radio 4’s ‘Book of the Week’ programme which had Bobby Seagull on again and ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ was one of the books under discussion. Finally, I was intrigued enough to decide it was time to read it. Seagull himself said he found the book to be excellent and I respected and liked him enough to find out what all the fuss was. After all, this book continues to be popular and claimed as ‘life-changing’ to many.
As an aside,to add to the freakiness of all this, while checking up on Bobby Seagull in preparation for this review I found out he taught Maths for two years at Chesterton Community College, Cambridge where I too taught for two years and trained as a teacher. Different times, of course (Seagull was fourteen when I was teaching there and living in Newham, London), but freaky nevertheless.
So what did I make of the book then, after spending decades ignoring it? I honestly don’t know. On the one hand it is still a really silly idea. The fourth chapter is so obviously a critique of one interpretation of church history that it makes the whole tale a rather insipid retelling of the Jesus story. Likewise, I’m almost annoyed, as a writer, to think this author has made an undisputed fortune from writing very little. Today, each of these chapters would constitute, at best, a blog post; a quick read. The book is small and thin and padded out with ridiculous numbers of photos of seagulls. You can read the whole thing in a little over an hour with ease. Parts of the story are lumpy, others don’t make a great deal of sense.
Pretty dreary then, right? Somehow…no. I found myself, despite all of the above, taking photos of certain pages which struck definite chords with me. I am making notes on a highly controversial book on religious philosophy which I intend to write in a few years’ time and several quotes from Jonathan Livingston Seagull have inspired me with ideas – the folder is now bulging with thoughts to develop further. I’ve even made my profile picture on some social media apps a photo quote from the book (though I’m sure it will be replaced soon enough) because the words really moved me.
What’s more, somehow these daft pictures of birds were really calming. I could hear them crying, see them flying, and felt the peace of the ocean waves…even now, describing this, I feel my heartbeat slowing and a sense of calmness take over me. There was much to love about this imperfect and ridiculous messianic tale. I’m not certain I won’t find myself reading it again, or at least dipping into it.
The book was written back in 1970 at a time when New Age cults and philosophies were all the rage. It is certainly a product of its time in this respect. There is a strong emphasis on freeing yourself from organised religion, traditions, from being released from the binds of what others tell you to be and do. Instead, the books tells you that you can be anything, do anything you want. Just believe it and be; a forerunner to Yoda’s ‘do or do not, there is no try’. This is a fable telling us we can all become God because Jesus too started as an ordinary man and became God – transcended if you wish. It’s very much a 20th Century thing, recovering from the backlash of 19th Century liberal theologians deconstructing God and the atheists spawned by Darwin dismissing deity, but wanting to find some kind of spirituality that the 1960s had brought with eastern meditation and Indian mythology. How can we make sense of a God we don’t believe in any longer? Simple – we realise Jesus was showing us how to become God too – without the trappings of doctrine.
Frankly, I don’t believe a word of it and, more importantly, there’s not a single new age devotee in the world who does from what I can see, for everyone is bound by laws of nature and has little choice but to interact with other human beings and follow rules of some sort. It is impossible to be free from restrictions. We all live by stories and rules.
But I do believe in a moderate version of some of these ideas and most pages contained at least some text which resonated within. I came away from the book feeling freer, as if a weight I was carrying had been lifted. I felt more disconnected from the human world in a good, positive way. Not a selfish, self-indulgent ‘finding myself’ kind of way but more an Aldous Huxley ‘lightly, child, lightly’ freeing from the cares of the world, like a metaphysical cleansing shower.
Should you bother reading it? I’m not sure, but I think so. Firstly, it doesn’t take long. Secondly, it has inspired whole generations of readers and that is always worth knowing. But, depending on your personal preferences, you might just find this a useful, thought-provoking little modern-day fable.
Or you might just think it’s shite. Your call.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.