Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written by Richard Bach, and illustrated by Russell Munson is a fable in novella form about a seagull who is trying to learn about life and flight, and a homily about self-perfection. It was first published in 1970, by the end of 1972 over a million copies were in print. Reader's Digest published a condensed version, and the book reached the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, where it remained for 38 weeks. In 1972 and 1973, the book topped the Publishers Weekly list of bestselling novels in the United States. In 2014 the book was reissued as Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The Complete Edition, which added a 17-page fourth part to the story.
The book tells the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a seagull who is bored with daily squabbles over food. Seized by a passion for flight, he pushes himself, learning everything he can about flying, until finally his unwillingness to conform results in his expulsion. An outcast, he continues to learn, becoming increasingly pleased with his abilities as he leads a peaceful and happy life.
One day, Jonathan met two gulls who took him to a "higher plane of existence" in which there was no heaven but a better world found through perfection of knowledge. There he meets another seagull who loves to fly. He discovers that his sheer tenacity and desire to learn make him "pretty well a one-in-a-million bird." In this new place, Jonathan befriends the wisest gull, Chiang, who takes him beyond his previous learning, teaching him how to move instantaneously to anywhere else in the Universe. The secret, Chiang says, is to "begin by knowing that you have already arrived." Not satisfied with his new life, Jonathan returns to Earth to find others like him, to bring them his learning and to spread his love for flight. His mission is successful, gathering around him others who have been outlawed for not conforming. Ultimately, the very first of his students, Fletcher Lynd Seagull, becomes a teacher in his own right, and Jonathan leaves to teach other flocks.
Part One of the book finds young Jonathan Livingston frustrated with the meaningless materialism, conformity, and limitation of the seagull life. He is seized with a passion for flight of all kinds, and his soul soars as he experiments with exhilarating challenges of daring aerial feats. Eventually, his lack of conformity to the limited seagull life leads him into conflict with his flock, and they turn their backs on him, casting him out of their society and exiling him. Not deterred by this, Jonathan continues his efforts to reach higher and higher flight goals, finding he is often successful but eventually he can fly no higher. He is then met by two radiant, loving seagulls who explain to him that he has learned much, and that they are there now to teach him more.
Jonathan transcends into a society where all the gulls enjoy flying. He is only capable of this after practicing hard alone for a long time and the first learning process of linking the highly experienced teacher and the diligent student is raised into almost sacred levels. They, regardless of the all immense difference, are sharing something of great importance that can bind them together: "You've got to understand that a seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull." He realizes that you have to be true to yourself: "You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way."
These are the last words of Jonathan's teacher: "Keep working on love." Through his teachings, Jonathan understands that the spirit cannot be really free without the ability to forgive, and that the way to progress leads—for him, at least—through becoming a teacher, not just through working hard as a student. Jonathan returns to the Breakfast Flock to share his newly discovered ideals and the recent tremendous experience, ready for the difficult fight against the current rules of that society. The ability to forgive seems to be a mandatory "passing condition."
In 2013 Richard Bach took up a non-published fourth part of the book which he had written contemporaneously with the original. He edited and polished it and then sent the result to a publisher. Bach reported that it was a near-death experience which had occurred in relation to a nearly fatal plane crash in August 2012, that had inspired him to finish the fourth part of his novella. In February 2014, the 138-page Bach work Illusions II was published as a booklet by Kindle Direct Publishing. It also contains allusions to and insights regarding the same near-death experience. In October 2014, Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The Complete Edition, was reissued and includes part four of the story.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected by several publishers before coming to the attention of Eleanor Friede at Macmillan in 1969. She convinced Macmillan to buy it and Bach received a $2,000 advance.
Several early commentators, emphasizing the first part of the book, see it as part of the US self-help and positive thinking culture, epitomised by Norman Vincent Peale and by the New Thought movement. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the book was "so banal that it had to be sold to adults; kids would have seen through it."
The book is listed as one of 50 "timeless spiritual classics" in a book by Tom Butler-Bowdon, who noted that "it is easy now, 35 years on, to overlook the originality of the book's concept, and though some find it rather naïve, in fact it expresses timeless ideas about human potential."
John Clute, for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, wrote: "an animal fantasy about a philosophical gull who is profoundly affected by flying, but who demands too much of his community and is cast out by it. He becomes an extremely well behaved accursed wanderer, then dies, and in posthumous FANTASY sequences — though he is too wise really to question the fact of death, and too calmly confident to have doubts about his continuing upward mobility — he learns greater wisdom. Back on Earth, he continues to preach and heal and finally returns to heaven, where he belongs."
This section needs additional citations for verification. (August 2015) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The novella inspired the production of a motion picture of the same title, with a soundtrack by Neil Diamond. The film was made by Hall Bartlett many years before computer-generated effects were available. In order to make seagulls act on cue and perform aerobatics, Mark Smith of Escondido, California built radio-controlled gliders that looked remarkably like real seagulls from a few feet away.
Bach, who had written the film's screenplay, later sued Paramount Pictures before the film's release because he felt that there were too many discrepancies between the film and the book. Director Bartlett had allegedly violated a term in his contract with Bach which stated that no changes could be made to the film's adaptation without Bach's consent. Bach took offense to scenes Bartlett had filmed which were not present in the book, most notably the sequence in which Jonathan is suddenly attacked by a wild hawk (voiced by Bartlett himself). Ultimately, the court ruled that Bach's name would be taken off the screenplay credits, and that the film would be released with a card indicating that Bach disapproved of the final cut. Bach's attorney claimed, "It took tremendous courage to say this motion picture had to come out of theaters unless it was changed. Paramount was stunned."
The Grammy Award-winning soundtrack album was composed by Neil Diamond and produced by Tom Catalano. It won the 1974 Grammy Award as Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a Television Special. The album apparently also made more money than the film. The album sold two million copies in the United States, 400,000 in France, 250,000 in Germany, 200,000 in Canada  and 100,000 in the United Kingdom.
The Irish actor Richard Harris won a Grammy in 1973 for the Audiobook LP Jonathan Livingston Seagull. To date Harris's reading has not been released on any other format. Versions read by the author, Richard Bach, have been released on LP, cassette, and CD.
John Livingston was an inspiration for the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull — 'to Johnny Livingston who has known all along what this book is all about.' — Richard Bach 1970