REVIEW: Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The Complete Edition

Jonathan Livingston SeagullJonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Third time reading this book. First time in 20 years. First time reading the Complete Edition (including rediscovered Part Four).  The photography included in this edition really adds to the beauty and contemplation of the story: it is worth buying the printed book for the pictures alone.

This book never gets old. It just gets more useful and I understand it better. When I first read in college, it seemed like a weird fantasy story about a bird. My young self was a bit of an outcast. I very much wanted to have the tenacity to dig deep into a passion everyone else thought was useless and prove them all wrong. So I did that (computers). This is probably why Seagull is on every college reading list and rightfully so.

Then re-reading it in my 30s after leaving the Catholic church and recently returning, the religious undertones popped out. Especially in (new) part four where the true meaning of the initial quest has been lost in the bureaucracy of the belief system built around it (sound familiar Catholics?) This is a classic Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. Hero is passionate, gets cast out of society, becomes enlightened around his passion, comes back to teach the TRUTH, is initially scorned, then accepted, then revered, then co-opted for other purposes and the TRUTH is lost. That is also the story of the Catholic Church in many ways.

Reading it again in my 50s after settling down a bit, the later parts of the story resonated. The desire to share your life wisdom with love and kindness. The frustration with success leading to misinterpretation and co-opting of original intent. But still the desire to give back to the next generation. The hope that an open mind willing to learn still existed.

Some favorite quotes:

“Who is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose in life?  For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to life – to learn, to discover, to be free!  Give me one chance, let me show you what I have found.”  Jonathan  “The Brotherhood is Broken”  said the other birds and they turned their backs on him.

“His one sorrow was not solitude, it was that other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they refused to open their eyes and see.”

He spoke of very simple things – that it is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.  The only true law is that which leads to freedom, there is no other.  The only difference, the very only one, is that they have begun to understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.

A long silence.  “Well, this kind of flying has always been here to be learned by anybody who wanted to discover it; that’s got nothing to do with time.”

“Why is it,” Jonathan puzzled, “that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for himself i he’d just spend a little time practicing?  Why should that be so hard?”

“To begin with,” he said heavily, “You’ve got to understand that the 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.”

They were honored, and worse – revered, but they were no longer heard, and the birds who practiced flying were fewer and fewer.

Anthony Seagull didn’t have answers, but he knew that he would gratefully, gladly lay down his life to follow any bird who could demonstrate what he was talking about, show him just a few answers in life that worked, that brought excellence and joy into everyday living.  Until he found that bird, life would remain gray and bleak, illogical, without purpose; every seagull would remain a coincidental collection of blood and feathers pointed toward oblivion.

My suggestion: Read this every 10 years. You will learn something new each time.

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Review: The Valkyries: Paulo Coelho

The ValkyriesThe Valkyries by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have been reading quite a few [author:Paulo Coelho|566] lately. Recently reviewed The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist. The Valkyries was a recently given to me by a friend who said it helped her through a messy divorce. While I am not going through a divorce, when she mentioned something about leather clad motorcycle lesbians and a desert spiritual ritual, I started right in.

Unfortunately for me the Valkyries fell flat. Third best of the three I have read. Skewered on the pitard of too much angel, ritual, “Tradition” talk and not enough context or engaging story narrative. While at times Coelho wants us to believe the story actually happened (mentioning in the epilogue that a letter from a reader verifying the existence of a shrine in the desert is filed with Brazil’s national library as proof of something), I became completely lost and uninterested in his search for his “Angel” and some kind of “Tradition” which remains unexplained. Half allegory and half biography, The Valkyries fails at both. After reading it I don’t know what the characters were looking for, I don’t know what they found and I don’t care. The story confused me and didn’t engage me.

As with all Coelho books, there are glimpses of insight worth underlining. Unfortunately these are few, far between and deeply hidden in The Valkyries. Here are a few of my favorites:

“In order to live in the present, you have to control your second mind. And look at the horizon.”

“Don’t fight your thoughts. They are stronger than you are. If you want to rid yourself of them, accept them. Think about what they want you to think about until they grow tired.” (standard meditation stuff, but well told)

“Let’s suppose that paradise is here. And every person on earth is here in the plaza. Each of them has their own path for arriving here. That’s why people talk to their angels. Because only angels know the best path. It does no good to seek advice about it from others.”

“I’m saying that everything is a ritual. Just as a mass is a great ritual, composed of various parts, the everyday experience of any person is, also. The name of that ritual is ROUTINE. When the ritual becomes consolidated, the person becomes a slave.”

“You need yet another miracle. And you will always need yet another. You will never be satisfied, and you will never understand that the kingdom of heaven cannot be conquered by force.”

“Each would always be fascinated by the other – so long as each remained exactly what the other imagined.” Imagination is better than reality for most people.

After the confusion, I sat back and tried to figure out what my friend gleaned from the book that helped in her divorce. Going back through my notes in the book, I found these notes around the “ritual” Paulo did in the desert cave with one of the Valkyries.

“There was a pact,” valhalla said, “What was it?”
“I promised I would abandon my dreams.” “I promised that I would never grow again. I thought that I could no longer trust myself.”

I have found it to be true that our lives are in large part governed by sacred promises we made to ourselves long ago that we may not be aware of today. Those promises were made to deal with a condition back then, but may not serve us today. Awareness of those pacts and contemplation of their use going forward in our lives is a critical skill I believe everyone should learn and perform about every 5 years. I recently did just that. While this skill and recognition is valuable, it is so far buried here in the story I missed it the first time. This piece is what my friend learned from. I am afraid most people will miss it.

After being completely underwhelmed by the narrative, the Epilogue turned out to be the best part. Coelho says clearly what his story did a terrible job of doing.

“We can share our experiences – as I have tried to share mine in this book but there is no formula for growth. God has generously made His wisdom and His love available to us, and it is easy, very easy, to find them. We, at this moment in history, must develop our own powers. We must believe that the universe doesn’t end at the wall of our room. We must accept the signs, and follow our hearts and our dreams.”

My recommendation: Skip the book, read the Epilogue and you will understand everything.

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