It is not often that one finds a best seller under the category of metaphysics or fantasy. It seems even less often that these books are also categorized as spiritual and non-fiction books by the same people. Richard Bach however, has developed a style over the course of his best-selling career, which leaves critics, booksellers, and readers alike simply wondering exactly what kind of book it is. Publishers Weekly reviews preview Bach's books as non-fiction. One: A Novel can be bought from amazon.com under the metaphysics category. Readers of the novel say it is a spiritual and inspirational story that every reader "owe[s] to [his] life." Bach's books are an exception to the best-seller formulas, which often rely on recipe story lines and stock-characters. One is littered with scientific and aviation vocabulary the average reader would find overwhelming. But then, Bach fuses with it a language that seems to be reserved for high school inspirational speakers or even ministers. It is this ordered confusion of the scientific and the spiritual world that seems to draw readers to Bach's quasi-religious character.
It is the persona that Bach presents in his novels that seem to capture the attention of fans. Bach outlines a philosophy of living in his first book Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1972) that continues to his last book Out of My Mind (1999). His success with that first novel about a seagull's self-discovery came at a time in the United States history wherein everything was defined by change. The 70s were a time of free love and war. Bach taught individualism and valued spiritual connections. Bach's novels are about escapism. If they teach us anything about bestseller, it is that Americans want to escape. Whether it be the gruesome images of the Vietnam War in the 70's or the white collar corporate crimes of the 80s, readers of Bach's novels must be people who do not want to dwell on the outside world. The American readers continued to hold on to these fantastical ideals even up to 1988, when One was published and reached best-seller status. There are many reasons for One's success. Primarily it is the author's following that launched the book to best-seller status. But another reason for One's success may be its implied religion, which leaves no one out. Accused by Christian group as embodying an anti-Christian ideals such as reincarnation and the like, Bach's books actually include all Christian ideals, and every other major religion for that matter. Bach manages to reach everyone with an undefined religious tone. His books are religious books for those with no religion.
Cults were big in the 70s. After the strict bible mentality of the 50s and 60s, the "hippie" generation there were many people looking for guidance and direction in such a troubled time that it was surrounding the Vietnam War. When Bach gained faithful followers with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, he seemingly gained followers for life. Bach presented a persona that stood out. Physically, Bach was a memorable fellow. A tall man with scruffy blond hair and beard clothed in aviator's apparel, who flew all across the country in small two-seater planes, Bach commanded the attention of those around him. His book tours where completed by plane, he gave airplane rides to readers. His books are personal experiences or ideals Bach holds. His life is his plot, and surprisingly, it made for popular reading. This unusual marketing strategy has attracted many kinds of fans.
A large-scale Time cover story was important in the success of all of Bach's future books because it outlined Bach's life, philosophies, hardships, poverty, and divorce, creating a persona for Americans to cling to. He is a fascinating character indeed. The author loves airplanes so much that at one time he allowed his family's only automobile to be repossessed while he still owned an airplane. Bach personally delivered his wife's baby in their own house. He once lost a job because he refused to "compromise his individuality" by getting rid of his mustache. In an even more bizarre twist of his personality, Bach claimed that he did not even write his first best selling novel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Instead he claimed, he had visions that he simply copied down on paper. "I don't write like that," he told Time, speaking of the way the book was actually constructed and what it was constructed about. He claims he actually he disagrees entirely with Jonathan's decision to abandon the pursuit of private perfection in favor of returning to the flock and encouraging its members to higher wisdom. Bach said that Self-sacrifice is a word he cannot stand. In a time when younger generations embraced rebellion of all sorts, Bach's unique lifestyle must have fascinated the first readers of Jonathan. His public persona must have appealed to many readers and that is what in fact may have sold many of his books.
Bach's unique personality did not go unpublicized. Bach has made many appearances on numerous talk shows over his life. More and more media appearances ensued the more was known about the author, the more he was realized to be such a curious man. Publisher's Weekly mentioned one instance where a Pittsburgh book store "sold 1000 copies in the first 24 hours after the author's appearance on the 'Contact' show". The public was intrigued by his renegade persona, thus his book sales soared following public appearances. Bach's refusal to conform to the usual roles of best selling author and popular media figure made him a fashionable personage for the rebellious youth of 1972 to admire. Once a fan base began as a result of the man's persona, his cult like following began.
As mentioned above, Bach's novels are escapist literature. Whether they are labeled as metaphysical, fantasy, or spiritual, Bach's novels take its readers out of the material world and bring them into a world of reincarnation, time and space travel, and high ideals of soul mates. In the early 70's the media's exploitation of its ability to bring the news of Vietnam home to the American people was inescapable. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the perfect piece of escapist literature for the ghastly surroundings of the time. It is a book in which the hero teaches others how to break the natural boundaries of time and place to find a better world in which to live. That optimism seemed to help many Americans escape the war. In Bach they found a messiah, and fans have been following his teachings ever since.
Many readers recognize Bach's moral undercurrent in all of his novels as well, which contain strains of a number of religious philosophies, but doesn't seem to encompass one in particular. It is a religious book for those without religion. Traditional American middle class religions like Christianity and Judaism have been seen as tenets of the older parent generation and religious exploration was yet another type of rebellion. This rebellion occurs by every single generation against the older one every decade. Just as many hippies of the 70s followed the new religious path of Hinduism and the members of black empowerment group began to follow the ways of the Nation of Islam, society in the 80s found a new term to follow: New Age. With emphasis on Buddhist practices of yoga and meditation, the idea that Bach presents in many of his novels wherein one may leave their body and the time in which they are stuck by mere thought alone, New Age ideals became popular for again for the young yuppies of America. America is a country founded on religion, yet some may question its religious ideals with all the violence and greed that can be found. People begun substituting the word religious for spiritual and again, Bach found a niche. Bach's philosophy of his body being nothing but thought is congruent with the Hindu belief of the body as simply a carrier of the soul. The goal of Hindu followers is to be enlightened, much like Bach's real life efforts to expose his readers to what he believes is the truth. He gave lectures across the country for years so that he may enlighten people as to what he has discovered through his own experiences through flying and writing. To reach the point of perfection where they no longer have to rely on their Earthly carriers anymore is what reaching Nirvana is. In his book One, Bach seems to suggest that the earthly body can be left behind at any point. As he and Leslie begin to travel through time, meeting other versions of themselves, they are simply flying through space in their minds. As soon as they want to "land" somewhere, it only has to be thought about, then it happens. Furthermore, Hindu religions believed in reincarnation as a means to continue to climb toward perfection even after death. In One and it's prequel, A Bridge Across Forever, Bach and his wife actually practice leaving their bodies so that when one of them dies as a result of bodily failure, the other may follow right behind.
A part of Bach's persona actually is his religion. A big proponent of the Church of Christ, Scientists, Bach extends some of the philosophy this religion in his novels. The Scientists believe that "Heaven and hell are not regarded as specific destinations one reaches after death, but as states of thought, experienced in varying degrees here and now, as well as after death." These are not the only religions represented in Bach's novels. However, since the books do not focus on one religion exclusively, its readers are able to interpret it however they want. The importance of Bach's spiritual message is that it allows the reader to decide what is important. It may be coming to the truth yourself or helping others to find it, the way Bach seemingly does with his life through his writing and lectures. By keeping his religious message open to interpretation, Bach was popular among people of many different persuasions. Perhaps the most important element of the book that helped it rise to stardom is this ability to appeal to all types of people. Its symbolism is so rich that every reader can project his or her own beliefs onto it. In One, Bach writes about "the place where ideas come from." Tink is the manager of the Idea Foundry. In writing that plot, Bach says it actually startled him "to meet her in person as he wrote about her, there in the altered state that is our mind when we write." He had the idea that the Idea Fairy was a quick caption, "a smile at the way we discover our unknowns." Instead in the novel she appears in a hard-hat and safety-goggles showing how ideas are poured and cooled, how they are designed and machined and embedded with laser-light on their way to cross our paths. Is Tink a God-like figure? It does seem to suggest that there is something out side of our selves that controls things such as our ideas. How it is interpreted though is left, in classic Bach style, up to the reader.
A writer for the New York Times suggests that the reason Bach's books appeal to non-religious people as a religious novel is because his books do not account for sin. "The twin problems of purpose and evil with which religion has traditionally wrestled are not even addressed, but dismissed as illusory" (New York Times: April 10, 1977). Therefore, readers are not riddled with guilt as many religions may cause in people. Bach has actually said that if he thought someone was creating an organized religion out of his books, that is "locking their ideas in a vault and inventing rituals to strangle individual understanding," he'd have to "go underground like Rambo, paint [him]self in camouflage and try to blow it up. Instead, he claims that he attempts to "re-define a person's religion as their way of finding what is true." In that sense, science and religion are the same, and sure enough, the most advanced scientists speak much the same language as the most advanced seekers of spirit. The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, by Gary Zukav are good instruction on this.
Just as I have argued, Joseph McLellan of the Washington Post acknowledged the popularity of Bach's writing for its "common currency" of ideas?"enlightenment, miracles, reincarnation, out-of-body-experiences" even as he felt unfulfilled by the depth and content of the book (The Washington Post, April 24, 1997). After Bach gained followers in the 70s for Jonathan Livingston Seagull with the help of his persona, he had followers who continued to help his books reach bestseller status.