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).
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.
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.