The Poop on . . . “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

In preparation for my next Books That Mattered post, I’m currently hip-deep into Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943). That doorstop of a novel weighs in at a daunting 727 pages. The edition I’m reading is so hefty I’ve been using it in lieu of my usual dumbbells to do biceps curls (hey, New Year’s is coming and we’ve got to get toned somehow).

So, as I was wading through Rand’s turgid tome, I decided to take a short break and go in the exact opposite direction. Write a quick post about something else. What was the shortest, most lightweight, least challenging book I could think of? Hmmm, let me think . . . of course . . . Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (1970).

Johnathan_Livingston_Seagull

My original 1970 edition of Seagull is all of 94 pages, at least half of which are black and white photographs, mostly of seagulls. (Russell Munson did the photography.) One realizes after the twenty-fifth page or so of seagull photographs that seagulls aren’t really very interesting or photogenic subjects. In fact, in Munson’s hands, they come off as these incredibly boring, not much to look at, mostly out of focus creatures. By the end of the book I really didn’t care whether I ever saw another seagull or seagull photograph in my life.

And even though I was taking a little longer than the average reader to get through the book (jotting down notes, desperately searching for interesting quotes to include in my post)–my entire reading time, start to finish, was a brisk 37 minutes. Heck, I’ve read a Henry James paragraph that took longer than that.

And the kicker is that this little sliver of a book–that takes a little over half an hour to read and probably didn’t take much longer to write–was a huge bestseller back in the day. Monster hit. According to the back cover blurb of a recent edition, Seagull was on the New York Times Best Seller list for two years. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the book topped the Publisher’s Weekly list of best selling novels in both 1972 and 1973.

I’m sure I read it back in the early Seventies. Mercifully, however, I have not an ounce of recall of the book itself. Somehow, Seagull has been just totally washed from my memory banks.

(The physical book itself, however, did come in handy by propping up one side of a disastrously listing coffee table we had in our first apartment back when my wife and I were first married. Chalk up yet another advantage of a physical book versus an e-book.)

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was ubiquitous in the early 1970s–almost as annoyingly omnipresent as that other lighter-than-air blockbuster from the same era, Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970) (which I’ve already written about–you can check the archives).

And let’s not forget (or maybe we should) the absolute stinker of a movie adaptation that Jonathan Livingston Seagull spawned (with a “so bad it’s kinda good” soundtrack by Neil Diamond). The movie version was so lame that the author ended up suing the film company for negligence.

blurry seagull

So how does the book hold up nowadays?

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is helpfully sub-titled “A Story.”  Not quite sure why that sub-title is there. Otherwise we might think it was a monograph on nuclear proliferation? A cookbook for preparing seabirds? Who knows.

If truth be told, a better sub-title might be: “A Mercifully Short ‘Book’ (Ha-Ha) for People Who Find the Comics Page of Their Local Newspaper Too Heavy and Intimidating But Want to Feel Like High-Minded Seekers of Philosophical Enlightenment.”  Probably too long for a good sub-title. But you get the picture.

I don’t know if you’ve picked this up from reading my blog so far, but I’m a real cheerleader for literature of all kinds. I may bitch and moan now and then, but I love books and love to turn people on to books. Even books that I think I am going to go pretty hard on, like On the Road, usually end up getting something of a pass from me. There’s always something in them to like, to admire, to care about, even (as a last resort) to laugh at.

But if there’s one thing I hate it’s phoniness. And I especially hate phony books. Especially super-short, super-trite phony books that end up being on the New York Times Best Seller lists for what seems like two decades.

While plenty of good writers, real writers, are living on store brand mac and cheese and having to heat their garrets with a single lump of coal for the entire winter, guys who write these phony books (you know who you are) are writing this absolute dreck, living large in their multi–million dollar cribs, having their grapes peeled by leggy “assistants.” Where’s the justice?

And, perhaps more to the point, who buys this stuff?

Especially all these pseudo-inspirational non-books. Like the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise. Or all those Mitch Albom abominations.

(To be fair, I’ve only read Tuesdays with Morrie, but that stinker was so glib and phony it put me in a funk for weeks. I can only assume the rest of his books are at least as bad if not worse. Can anybody out there help me out on this one?)

My gag reflex automatically kicks in whenever I see the words “Inspirational” on a book cover. Feel like mulching the sucker. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

So I was going to spend a few minutes doing my usual close-reading of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, try to convey a sense of what it’s about, dig up a few illustrative quotes, you know the drill. But what’s the point, really?

Let’s just say Seagull is a phony bit of pseudo-philosophy, pseudo-religion, even pseudo self-help and let’s leave it at that. All about not following the path that nature has set out for you (which in a seagull’s case, I guess, is endlessly foraging for food and annoying people at the beach) and instead following your destiny or whatever. OK, just one quote:

“To begin with,” he said heavily, “you’ve got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself.”

If you like this kind of crap, this is the book for you. For the rest of us, why don’t we let the late great Roger Ebert have the last word on Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “. . . The Little Engine That Could is, by comparison, a work of some depth and ambition.” (Good old Roger could zing it with the best of them.)

Now, back to The Fountainhead . . . I’ve got 50 more reps to do before dinner.

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11 Comments

Filed under baby boomers, books, literature

11 responses to “The Poop on . . . “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

  1. Funny post! Love the title. Wonder why some shlock books like Johnathan Livingston Seagull catch on while so many more deserving ones languish on the sidelines.

    • I guess there’s no real answer to that question. So the best we can do is to keep championing all the great books out there (especially the non-blockbusters and best sellers) and hope they find their audience. Have a Merry Christmas!

  2. The single image I retain from my forty-years-ago reading of JLS is that of a man “swimming” through the earth! I hope I have the right book! The feeling I associate with that image is my regret that I couldn’t quite believe in the reality of that depth of magical realism. That regret was grounded in my yearning for “something beyond” the wretched constraints of space and time, a yearning that I believe underlies the vast popularity of books like JLS. It’s the same desire for transcendence that enables otherwise rational people to believe in Jesus’ physical reincarnation and the presumption that such an event might be somehow integral to one’s own life. Surely this widespread (I’m avoiding the word “universal”) urge for transcendence is one of the most worthy topics for literature — its acknowledgement, the representation of the wretchedness that might stimulate it, and our occasional efforts to capture transcendence. But I suggest that, for it to be considered successful as art, it needs to draw the reader into the reality of this struggle, which is the stuff of life itself, open-ended as long as we are alive. The remarkable failing of JLS is that it takes itself seriously as a “solution”, like a religious tract, as if to propose a closed end to the struggle. The acceptance of such closure would be giving up on life, the symbolic embrace of death.

    • Thanks for your comments, Martin. I always appreciate getting feedback on my posts; though I must admit I find it interesting that you are treating JLS with so much more seriousness and weightiness than I have. (Whether the book deserves serious consideration is, of course, the question.) Anyway, thanks again for reading. And Happy Holidays.

  3. LOL I’m honored for the follow from one who can smell phoniness a mile away.

  4. Funny, funny post. Makes me want to check out Jonathan Livingston Seagull to see what all the fuss was about back then.

  5. I have not one, but two Mitch Albom books in the 746. Tellingly, they were both gifts. I’m dreading them now! I think books like this need to be read at a particular ‘time’ in your life – namely that age when you are searching for something deep but don’t yet have the appropriate critical faculties. I read The Alchemist when I was around 19 and thought it was amazing. I have a feeling I wouldn’t feel the same if I reread it now, 23 years later!

    • Don’t know if I’m being fair to Mitch Albom or not — as I mentioned in my post, I’ve only read his Tuesdays with Morrie. But, knowing my tastes, I suspect I’d hate the others. Haven’t read The Alchemist — is it worth checking out?

      • I’m really not sure Erich. It’s a pretty simple parable. I thought it was beautiful when I read it but I was in my very early twenties and I don’t know how it would hold up now.

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