Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Maybe sometimes a simple economic argument can be used to determine an artwork’s worth: for the amount of time spent with it, how much was gained in terms of interesting ideas or other feelings or inspiration. Then something as short as this book – fully finishable within an hour or so – gets a little bit of leeway as far as rigorous profundity goes. The “opportunity cost” is lower – what’s an hour, in a waiting room or on a short flight, and would you really have drifted into its considerations otherwise, maybe so or maybe not, but it’s hardly a work where you are encaged by whatever stupidities or stultifications you might perceive.

The prose is minimalist, and essentially the central concept is too – it’s basically a kid’s story for adults, which might sound derogatory but actually is not. By being so it reawakens – or at least lightly attempts to roust – little pieces of oneself that retain a yearning for the unlikely breakthroughs and exhilarations felt by the avian protagonist, if not the rebelliousness. While it has an air of self-conscious pop spirituality buffeting its wings that smells of its 1960s era, the magical metaphors (total mental liberation and discipline enabling superpowers) are not actually all that different from those of any other age, and there’s enough unique realism involved – probably due to the author’s pilot experience – to balance out its trajectory. If nothing else it does convincingly portray the joy of flying.

But then it is so familiar, and so cursory by its short length and clipped quality of detail (traits, characters, environs), that it doesn’t feel like more than a trifle to someone who’s read or heard works and ideas which are only faintly echoed. It recaptures for a brief time a little of the reaching for more self-mastery and exploration, but never fully builds to the tingling recognition of deep truth or emotion typical of the best and most valuable art encounters.

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