Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

Ish9cc09a5e2bc5a2d593630315151434d414f4541Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

A Bantam/Turner Book, New York, 1995

I am not sure why I haven’t read Ishmael before.  Maybe I thought it would be too “new age”, I’d had enough of that by the early ’90’s.  Some people think it is.  I don’t.  Maybe I thought the tone would be too “spiritual”, I’d had enough of that also. It’s not, quite the opposite.

Ishmael is the story of an observer of the human race.  It happens that this observer is a Gorilla that communicates telepathically.  You can think of it as a fantasy if you want to.  We meet Ishmael because a new student has answered a classified ad that reads:

Teacher seeks pupil.  Must have a earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person.

Ishmael’s philosophy has to do with human culture and the fact that, even though humanity is destroying the planet at an ever increasing rate, and many people know we are doing so in ways that put all life in great danger, people continue to behave the way they do.

The idea is that human culture branched into two streams about ten thousand years ago, at the time of the agricultural revolution.  Those cultural branches became “Takers” and “Leavers”.  Guess what group we belong to? Quinn’s understanding of human history is fascinating and has peaked my curiosity.  It is a very different way of looking at western culture, and one that actually makes sense to me.

I have to admit, I am a prime candidate for this book.  Since I first became aware of different kinds of human culture, and of the planet we live  on and all the glorious life that also lives here,  I wondered how people can “use” the planet, how everything here is “our” resource,  how any other life is not as valuable as our own, how we can continue to do what we do and not think there will be consequences.  What Quinn discusses in this book is what I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time, whenever I have the strength to face what we, human beings,  have done here.

Wait, you say.   We are taking steps to deal with fossil fuels and climate change, airn’t we?   Yes, some of us are, very small steps.  It’s like trying to turn  a very massive, very powerful ship that is steaming full speed ahead towards oblivion.  Regardless of the steps we take it is too late to mitigate much of of the damage.  Think of the oceans, think of the forests, think of the loss of life.  I mean human life and the life of other beings that share this planet with us.  We’ve known about all of this for decades and there were very few who were willing to take it seriously.  Daniel Quinn has figured out a way to talk about it, a way that  makes sense to me.

But what about science, what about technology?  Won’t they save us?  Maybe, but what will our life be like.  What will our grand-children’s children’s life be like.  I think about it whenever I take a friend to the zoo and wonder if this is all these animals will have left.

Forgive my rambling.  All I would ask, if you are willing, that you read this book.  Read it with an open mind, and see what you think.  I have to thank Fyrefly for suggesting this on the 4R’s Challenge forum.  The suggestion was a great one and now I’m going to read The Story of B.

Other books related to this post:

World as Lover, World as Self by Joanna Macy

A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen

The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen


Filed under 4 R's Challenge, Challenges, Review, What An Animal II

5 responses to “Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

  1. I’m so glad you read this, and that you enjoyed it! I’m never quite sure about recommending it to other people, because although I love it, I first read it when I was in the throes of my “I’m sixteen and going to change the world” phase, and so I don’t really know how well it would hold up to a first reading as an adult. But you seemed like a good candidate for it, and I’m glad I was right!

    I hope you enjoy Story of B too; personally, it’s my favorite of Quinn’s books.

    • Fyrefly – Thank you so much for the recommendation. I think it held up well for this adult but, as I said in my review, I was ready for it. I’m looking forward to reading The Story of B.

  2. Fascinating, really. I wonder about these issues frequently, and figure we can’t go on forever doing the things we do. I think people don’t take it seriously because the damage won’t hurt them in their lifetime. Very narcissistic society, aren’t we? Great review, and great recommendation from Fyrefly.

    • Sandy – I think you are right about people not taking things seriously unless it hits home. It sad to me that it can take a real shock or loss to change people’s thinking. You might really like Ishmael, the kids might too.

      I’m glad you are back!

  3. I completely agree – I wouldn’t call it new age at all. And his way at looking at culture and civilization makes a lot of sense to me too. I loved your review, and you’ve made me want to read this again.

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