Forgotten Authors No.14: Richard Bach
Sunday 16 November 2008
There are certain books only college students have the patience to read. In the Seventies, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were romping up the book charts in university towns. Each generation of wide-eyed freshers promotes one of these into the bestsellers, and at least it can be said that the standard is improving. For all I know, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated could be wonderful beyond page 17.
Back in 1970, though, students were prepared to read a book exploring the life philosophy of a seagull. Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull smashed the bestseller records. The slender, square tome was to be found poking out of backpacks the world over. It concerns an anthropomorphic seagull that yearns to fly higher instead of just worrying about where its next whiting is coming from. Millions swallowed the inspirational Christian parable which, at 120 pages (heavily illustrated), took about 12 minutes to digest. It was so successful that it became a film consisting of shots of seagulls floating about to wiffly Neil Diamond songs, the overall effect of which was like lapsing into a coma caused by a getting a paper cut from a Hallmark card.
Bach followed this with Illusions and One, the message being that we transcend the gravity of our bodies and believe in ourselves, or something. Bach described The Bridge Across Forever as "a story about a knight who was dying, and the princess who saved his life," which, as it concerned the second lady in his life, must have felt like a smack in the face to his first and third partners.
Claiming to be a direct descendent of Johann Sebastian Bach, the former pilot-turned-novelist loved to explore the metaphysical aspects of flying. Bach's books are fictional versions of moments in his life that illustrate his philosophy. Call me a curmudgeon, but I like to think that his books fell from popularity because students became too sophisticated not to see through this kind of tendentious new-age sputum.
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