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Jonathan Livingston Seagull
9.3.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Long before James Redfield made his millions with The Celestine Prophecy, there was another, much simpler, much cuter and much better-written book of new-age philosophy, called Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by a guy called Richard Bach. Like The Celestine Prophecy, Jonathan Livingston Seagull developed a cult following of hippies searching for spirituality outside of organized religion. Unlike The Celestine Prophecy, it didn’t take itself too seriously.

The book is a simple story, a parable really, of a young seagull who loves to fly. The other gulls in his flock see flying only as a means of obtaining food, but for Jonathan Livingston Seagull it is so much more. He loves to fly in new ways. He breaks all flight-speed records; he learns to fly slowly without stalling; he flies higher than any other gull; he practices aerobatics.

The Elders of Jonathan’s flock see his wild antics as dangerous, and he is eventually cast out of the flock, in a klingon-style shunning ritual. Undaunted, he continues to practice flying on his own. He eventually transcends this world, to a higher plane, and joins a community of like-minded gulls who are all trying to attain perfection in flight.

Eventually, Jonathan learns to move through space and time by thought alone. As his teacher, Chiang, explains, “Perfect speed, my son, is being there.” Jonathan uses his newfound skill to go back to his original flock, where he begins to teach the benighted birds who cast him out about flight and freedom and perfection.

All this may sound a bit far-fetched and flaky—it may sound like the sort of stuff you have to smoke a lot of dubious plants to appreciate—but it’s written in such a simple and compelling way that even the cynical and straight-edged might find themselves buying into it.

The grand metaphor here, of course, is flying. Instead of just surviving, Jonathan sees flying as a gull’s highest purpose. And through perfection of flight, Jonathan transcends his physical reality and the limits that that reality places on him. The implication is that we all have unlimited potential within us, and all barriers can be overcome.

As usual with new-age spirituality, Jonathan Livingston Seagull mixes Christian tropes with elements of Buddhist philosophy and a few feel-good self-help clichés, condenses them down into an easily digestible whole, and serves it up in the form of an internationally best-selling book. But Jonathan Livingston Seagull is different from other books of this sort in that it is not infuriatingly smug and didactic. Instead, it manages to be simple, charming and unpretentious.

One word of warning: DO NOT WATCH THE MOVIE. It’s basically a two-hour Neil Diamond music video. The only redeeming factor is the amusing ultra-low-budget teleportation scene.

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