Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a novel by Richard Bach. On the surface it appears to be a simple animal fable about a seagull learning how to become the greatest flyer of all time. Deeper analysis, however, shows that, just as more traditional animal fables once were, the book is really a homiletic about self-perfection and self-sacrifice.

In 1970, Richard Bach, a distant relative of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, published Jonathan Livingston Seagull -- a story. It first became a firm favourite on American university campuses. From this base, the book rapidly gained in popularity. By the end of 1972, over a million copies were in print, the Reader's Digest had published a condensed version and the book reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for 38 weeks. Today, thirty-three years and millions more copies later, it is still in print.

The impact made by this slender book has been remarkable, though not the occasion for much academic attention. Schoolchildren and students who had not even been born when the book was first published have put their assessments of it on the Internet. Samizdat copies of the entire text can also be found on the net, ready for downloading. It has inspired the production of a motion picture (about which the consensus is that the best part of it was Neil Diamond's soundtrack) a ballet and a thousand posters of flying gulls on a million adolescent bedroom walls. Clearly, Jonathan Livingston Seagull has joined Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Gibran's The Prophet, and, for a previous generation, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as one of those must-read books that one encounters in late adolescence and that remains with one forever.

Like any piece of literature with any scope, Jonathan Livingston Seagull can be interpreted in many ways. Several early commentators, focusing mainly on the first part of the book, see it as part of that American self-help and positive thinking culture epitomised by Norman Vincent Peale, or, less kindly, compare it to the children's tale The Little Engine That Could. But while Jonathan Livingston Seagull may take the form of a traditional animal fable, and can be enjoyed by young children at that level, its greatest attraction has not been to children. Indeed, just as the fables of Aesop and the Buddhist Jataka tales were not originally designed to be children's entertainment, so does Jonathan Livingston Seagull exist on different planes of interpretation, of which the children's book is probably the least important.

This multi-level character of the book was actually abhorrent to many reviewers at the time: in 1972, when "postmodernism" was an obscure theory of architecture rather than a culture-wide buzzword, Beverley Byrne noted how,

No matter what metaphysical minority the reader may find seductive, there is something for him in Jonathan Livingston Seagull. ... the dialogue is a mishmash of Boy Scout/Kahlil Gibran. The narrative is poor man's Hermann Hesse; the plot is Horatio Alger doing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The meanings, metaphysical and other, are a linty overlay of folk tale, old movies, Christian tradition, Protestantism, Christian Science, Greek and Chinese philosophies, and the spirits of Sports Illustrated and Outward Bound ... This seagull is an athletic Siddharta tripping on Similac, spouting the Koran as translated by Bob Dylan ... One hopes this is not the parable for our time, popular as it is -- the swift image, all-meaning metaphor that opens up into almost nothing. (Byrne, B 1972. Seagullibility and the American ethos. Pilgrimage. 1:1, pp 59-60.)

One doubts that Byrne would approve, but her analysis has turned out to be almost prophetic. Twenty-first century society, or as much of it as we at its beginning can see emerging, is multicultural, tolerant of cognitive dissonances, constantly seeking new ways of re-appropriating the old. Even our conservatism now carries a multiplicity of meanings.

Today, this multiple layering of meaning, not to mention the ransacking of sources to construct a new playful non-ultimate meaning, is precisely what lends a book appeal. Indeed, there is no longer a single way to look at life, or at a book, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull was, in retrospect, a marker on the road from the 20th to the 21st centuries, from the certainties of modernism to something we call postmodernism -- unless a different name comes along, of course.

One could not claim that it is a deep book in the sense that Crime and Punishment is deep. But it has width, scope, and above all, spirit. It may start off with a paean to progress, but by the end of the book, progress has subsided into no-gress, into the realisation that all is as it must be. It soon escapes from any conceptual framework in which we try to put it. Contrary to Byrne's hopes, it has indeed become the parable for our time. Or at least one of them.