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Ishmael Librarian's note: An alternate cover edition can be found hereTEACHER SEEKS PUPILMust have an earnest desire tosave the world Apply in personIt was just a threeline ad in the personals section, but it launched the adventure of a lifetime So begins Ishmael, an utterly unique and captivating novel that has earned a large and passionate following among readers and critics alike—one of the most beloved and bestselling novels of spiritual adventure ever published

  • Paperback
  • 266 pages
  • Ishmael
  • Daniel Quinn
  • English
  • 05 March 2017
  • 9780553375404

About the Author: Daniel Quinn

I had and did the usual things childhood, schools, universities (St Louis, Vienna, Loyola of Chicago), then embarked on a career in publishing in Chicago Within a few years I was the head of the Biography when that was subsumed by a larger outfit and moved to New York, I stayed behind and moved into educational publishing, beginning



10 thoughts on “Ishmael

  1. J.G. Keely J.G. Keely says:

    Are you the sort of person who hears other people discussing books and finding yourself wondering how they can even form opinions on stories? I mean, either you like it or you don't, right?

    Well, if that's you, then read this book, The Giver, and Siddhartha (if that sounds like too much, substitute Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the latter). Once you've done that, you'll feel all sorts of strange emotions and ideas swirling around inside you and you, too, will be able to talk about how a book made you think.

    Then, you should watch Donnie Darko (which will become your favorite movie), and you can talk about how movies made you think, too. Soon, you'll be readin' and thinkin' and talkin' up a storm. It's just like a dog who eats grass so he can understand horses.

    This book may seem impressive if you don't have much experience with philosophy, history, sociology, or theology, but the ideas in this book are about as complex as what you'd find in a college freshman's paper. And Quinn has an agenda: he wants to convince you, so all of his ideas are simplified and mixed up to support his conclusions. Whether he did this deliberately to convince the reader, or accidentally in the process of trying to convince himself isn't really important--which is really worse?

    For example, in his retelling of the Cain and Abel story, he completely conflates Hunter Gatherer societies with Pastoral Nomads, which makes his entire argument murky. It's just another example of the 'Noble Savage in balance with nature' thing, which is terribly naive. Native cultures often transformed the land around them and drove animals to extinction, as evidenced by the way mammoths were hunted until none remained.

    One archaeological team on the West Coast of America discovered that the local tribe had been systematically killing and eating all the animals in the area. Looking through the piles of discarded bones, they'd find the tribe hunted and ate one animal until there were none left, then moved on to a different animal. Eventually, the diseases brought by Europeans reached them and their population was greatly reduced, and then the animals began to flourish again.

    The whole notion that humans used to be 'in balance' but no longer are is a fuzzy dream, and not useful for anyone trying to look at the world and the problems we face. Humans are not the first animals to cause extinction, we're not even the first to cause worldwide atmospheric change leading to mass extinction. It is a gross oversimplification, like all of the arguments in this book--and one that was already a quarter century out of date among ecologists by the time Quinn was writing.

    You might ask 'why is this a problem, isn't any book that gets people to think worthwhile?'--but the problem is that through oversimplification and emotional appeals, this books actually sets out to shut down independent thought in the reader. It isn't asking hard questions as much as it's giving out easy answers. It is trying to tell you how things are, instead of inviting you to question the world for yourself.

    Beyond that, the philosophy it presents is a rather insidious one, at its core. The idea that there is some 'great natural order' to things is very comforting, because it makes the world sensible, predictable, and easy to understand. If there is such an order, then we can simply trust in it, give ourselves up to it, and let the rest take care of itself. It becomes a passive attitude--a question of faith in the system.

    But the idea of the 'natural order' has been used (and is still being used) by power structures against the people. Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, wrote on it extensively, using it to set up and maintain apartheid--arguing that since colonial Europeans had conquered large parts of the world, therefore it was their 'natural state' to rule, and that it was natural for native populations to be ignorant and subservient.

    Likewise, when the powerhouse thinktank the Club of Rome presented The Limits of Growth in 1972, proposing that the only way to prevent ecological disaster was to maintain things as they are now, indefinitely, protesters pointed out that this policy would support the status quo, keeping the same people and structures in power, instead of trying to improve or change our current system (and of course, the club was made up of the same political leaders, businessmen, bureaucrats, and economists who would have the most to lose if any change were made in the current system).

    By the seventies, there was already a sea change taking place in ecology, and it was becoming clear that, far from being in a state of self-correcting balance, the natural world was constantly shifting and changing, that animal and plant populations varied widely from year to year, and decade to decade, even in isolated populations where you would most expect to see equilibrium reached. The problem becomes that anyone who believes that some structure must be there, underlying everything, is going to trust that at a certain point, that structure will balance things out automatically.

    It's like walking a tightrope and just assuming there must be a net below you that will catch you when you fall--a dangerous assumption to make, especially when we know it's not true. Taking action to stabilize our world on our end, but just trusting that 'natural balance' will take care of things on the other end is the height of irresponsibility, and bound to throw things even more out of whack. A more in-depth look at the progression of ecological theory can be found in part 2 of the BBC documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace .

    In the end, mixed in with wrong-headed assumptions and out of date theories, Quinn gives us nothing more than the most simplistic, basic conclusions about the world. Should people be nice to each other? Yes. Should we destroy the things that keep us alive? No. We all know that. We don't need Quinn to tell us. And we all know that solving problems is harder than saying that things could be better. I just went as deep as this book goes, and I didn't even need to give you lectures from a magical talking monkey.

  2. Anna Anna says:

    My biggest problem with primitivism as a philosophy is its inherent hypocrisy. Notice how it's always highly educated white dudes insulated from the world who clamor for a return to some idealized simpler life? In the case of this book, it's a distinguished professor haughtily preaching about how we should learn some lessons from hunter-gatherer people, channeling his philosophy through a gorilla character who converses with an everyman character. Ishmael the gorilla makes a passing derogatory mention of the noble savage idea, then spends the rest of the book romanticizing and idealizing the hunter-gatherer cultures, trying to get across the idea that modern Western people have trouble seeing merit in such cultures because we've been brainwashed by our industrialized society.

    But the thing is, going back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle would mean a goodbye to literacy, to book publishing, to all the things without which Daniel Quinn and others like him would have no more literary soapbox to stand on. Instead, he'd be busy carrying his life on his back as he trudged across the plains looking for food and trying to not get eaten by lions. He'd die before the age of 40 of some perfectly treatable disease -- that is, if he hadn't died while being born or during childhood.

    The extreme utopianism and naivete pissed me off so much that I did some research on the anarcho-primitivist philosophy behind it. Turns out my views on this matter match those of Noam Chomsky, who wrote the following in Chomsky on Anarchism:

    I do not think they are realizing that what they are calling for is the mass genocide of millions of people because of the way society is now structured and organized, urban life and so forth. If you eliminate these structures, everybody dies. For example, I can't grow my own food. It's a nice idea, but it's not going to work, not in this world. And in fact, none of us want to live a hunter-gatherer life. There are just too many things in life that the modern world offers us. In just plain terms of survival, what they are calling for is the worst mass genocide in human history. And unless one thinks through these things, it's not really serious.

    Indeed, mass genocide is exactly what Quinn advocates in Ishmael. One of his arguments is that the world's population is growing and draining the Earth's resources, and to control the population we must reduce the food supply, specifically to the parts of the world that are already experiencing famine. To put it another way, he's in favor of starving a million people in Africa and India whose only crime was being born in the wrong time and the wrong place. Nice, Dr. Quinn. Why not just make it simpler and kill off the poorest 10 percent of the world's population? That part of the book smelled a lot like Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal to me, except unfortunately Quinn is not an intentional satirist.

    Another issue was the deeply rooted sexism in both the language and the thought process. Here's a quote about why Mother Culture is always feminine in the text: Culture is a mother everywhere and at every time, because culture is inherently a nurturer... Because of course, a woman's role is always as mother and nurturer and not much else.

    The starting premise of this book is that the human race is quickly destroying the Earth, and we will kill ourselves and take the planet with us if we don't stop. This is a premise with actual scientific proof behind it. Humans believe that they are the end-all be-all of evolution, and therefore the planet belongs to them to do as they please with no regard for other species or life forms, and that's what's going to kill us, sooner than later. Nothing to disagree with, there. But Quinn's solution is a bunch of hypocritical and unrealistic drivel.

    All that being said, I know that for some people (including my boyfriend, who loves this book and is the reason I read it in the first place), Ishmael is what opened their eyes to the dire need to protect the environment. That's great. I just hope that no one ends their search for a solution with this book and this philosophy.

  3. Sherri Scoffield Sherri Scoffield says:

    This book gets many 5-star reviews and is touted as “life changing”.
    My comment: “GET A LIFE!!!” This could possibly be THE WORST book I have ever read. I have been reading this book forever! I am so glad I am finished!
    It’s 200+ pages of torture! (This size of book I would normally devour in 1-2 days.) It’s a sociology lecture --- a cringingly horrible, horrible, didactic book. And to top it off, it’s horribly written.

    This telepathic gorilla pontificates on culture, his take on the book of Genesis, and re-evaluates mankind’s philosophy on life and how we're killing the world. His canned banter with his obtuse human student is more than annoying – it’s offensive. It’s condescending, full of piteous prose, even worse philosophy and false history, not to mention the pitiful interpretation of the Bible.

    I would recommend this book for:
    · Undergraduate philosophy majors ????
    · People who don't know anything and are willing to be treated like idiots…….
    · Chris Matthews
    · Al Gore and friends!

    May I share some of the reviews I DO agree with:

    · “A talking gorilla is the only one who can convince a yuppie to give up his evil ways; no wonder the world is in the state that it is in. I've met a lot of people who love this book, but I was just disgusted from beginning to end.

    · “Too lava-lamps, hug-a-tree, squishy-fruity for my taste.”

    · “No amount of perceived philosophical insight could make up for the way this book butchers the English language and thoroughly disrespects the notion of literature. If you value cohesiveness and writing in general, I urge you to stay away.”

    · “I was incredibly annoyed by the dialogue and slow pace of the book and the main character’s block-headedness: ‘But Ishmael, I just don't get it..., please explain again for the next 45 minutes.

    · “This book just annoyed the heck out of me.”

    · “Ridiculous, unless of course Quinn (the author) is a 6th grader from Tennessee, in which case I'm impressed.”

    · “Who needs Ishmael when we have Al Gore?”

    · “Hated this. Recommended by a friend. Now I know that religion is not only false, but it’s also evil. And humans are nothing more than jellyfish a bit farther down the evolutionary path.” Really!!!!!

    · “I'm embarrassed I read it. Pure garbage.”

    · “This book was really annoying and insulting, and so sanctimonious! Blech!”

    · “Conceited, pretentious, overdone, belabored: perfect match for Al gore in an ape suit.”

    · “Are you over forty years old but have somehow slid through life without forming a single firm philosophical principle? Have you missed your chance to take a stand – any stand at all? Do you have a vague dislike of society - a nascent antiestablishmentarianism that you've never given voice to - but lack the courage and curiosity necessary to give form to your rebellion? Are you nominally scientific (or well, nominally religious!!), but willing to believe that ancient humans were psychic, vegetarian, and lived in harmony with all nature? Are you dying spiritually but unwilling to give up your SUV? Are you so gutless that you'll sacrifice what values you have for the smallest smug feeling of comfort? If you've weakly nodded in agreement to any of those questions, this is the book for you,…….. you spineless toad.”

    · “I absolutely HATED this book.”

    · “Unforgivable. Instead of reading it, why not beat yourself over the head with a brick for an hour?”

    · AND MY PERSONAL FAVORITE:
    “I would rather eat glass than read this book again.”

    SO...why did I waste my time reading this book? Ahhh………...there’s “the rub”!! I try to read, with my children, all the books their schools require of them ----
    It was required reading for my high school Junior!!! Errrrgggggggg!!!!!!

  4. kevin kevin says:

    The reason I like Quinn’s style in “Ishmael” is that he doesn’t assume a pedantic perch atop humanity and force-feed a philosophically-driven, A-Z laundry list of “how to make yourself a better human being” and “save the world one person at a time” mantra down the reader’s throat. His style of writing is intimate. Reading “Ishmael” kind of reminds you of sitting in lecture with that one professor in college whose class you earnestly enjoyed and looked forward to attending each week - those lectures where you felt as if taking notes was more of an inconvenient distraction than simply opening your ears and listening for 60 minutes. You got more out of it by just sitting there like a blob taking it all in as opposed to fretting over particulars. You can tell Quinn is (or was) a good teacher. A good teacher defined as one who guides his/her students to the answers to their questions; not one who regurgitates, spoon-feeds or paraphrases concepts, principles and opinions down your throat systematically. Like Ishmael's narrator, I too found myself excited to come back each day (via turning the next page) to learn another part of the “story.”

    What I find fascinating about this book is the power of its seemingly simplistic message: “Man unto himself is temporal phenomenon.” Quinn doesn’t waste his time extrapolating the myriad of problems that affect our world to make his point. He doesn’t bother to persuade or guilt the reader into action with “doomsday” scenarios, statistics, outcomes or make sententious arguments to bolster his credibility as a “thinker.” Instead, he plainly examines the most basic function of the human species and how the organization of its functionality became – well, dysfunctional. Regardless of whether you factor God, evolution or “little green men” into your respective paradigm to help you make sense of humanity, its purpose and ultimate destiny - refuting the message in this book is unreasonable. Human beings are the most evolved, intelligent and capable species on the planet. As such, we find ourselves amidst a paradox. We are progenitor to the earth as well as the root source of its impending (or at least eventual) devastation.

    Ishmael is not a book whose scope is easily confined to the adverse effects of humanity on the environment or excess population or invasion of one civilization by another throughout history or how we’re killing the polar bear into extinction, etc. Its message is simply that man has forgotten his place in the order of nature (in a very large context) and that happened the moment man was cognizant of his innate ability to differentiate good vs. evil as a species. As a result, man began to use that acumen as an instinctual instrument to serve as justification for what “lives” and what “dies” pursuant to ensuring his unlimited growth – at any expense. - KL







  5. BlackOxford BlackOxford says:

    Lessons in Metaphysics for Recovering Idealists

    The conventional translation of the name Ishmael from Hebrew is ‘God hears’. But there is an equally plausible alternative: ‘Man is God’.* This could well be Daniel Quinn’s satirical intent. First called Goliath, then renamed Ishmael, but acting like Socrates, Quinn’s central character is a gorilla who teaches his idealistically minded, now middle-aged, seeker that God is precisely what Man is not. And he does this expertly.

    The term ‘metaphysics’ in understandably confusing to most people. It does after all refer to that which is beyond rational knowledge. Esoteric philosophy and religious mysticism are probably the first things that come to mind. But metaphysics is neither esoteric nor mystical. Rather, it is the very straightforward stories we tell ourselves about how things have come to be as they are. In fact these stories are so straightforward, so obvious, and so universally accepted that they are effectively invisible - unless one happens to have a Socratically adept non-human primate at hand.

    The way to discover what the metaphysics of any culture are was perfected by Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century. He called it ‘transcendental deduction’, another intimidating term but something far simpler than it sounds. In fact we do it all the time, particularly when we’re confronted with events that are somehow disturbing or traumatic. Why, for example, does a terrorist act the way he does? Why do very wealthy people put so much effort into increasing their wealth? What is the real reason for a couples’ divorce?

    These are questions which seek a certain type of answer, namely: What must be true - in terms of motives, reasoning, or factual circumstances - for people to act the way they do. The trick in transcendental deduction is to take into account everything we know about the behaviour or the situation in question, progressively removing those motives, reasons, and facts which are not necessary to explain what’s going on. This takes skill but it is not magic. In fact according to Quinn, gorillas are not bad at it al all.

    Ishmael’s transcendental deduction of modern culture is eye-opening, even if one doesn’t agree entirely with the implications he draws from it. Here’s one metaphysical revelation, for example: The debate between Evolutionists and Creationists is completely meaningless and merely distracts from a universal presumption of modern culture that is taken as true without question. According to both secularists and religionists, mankind is the most important result of creation - for the former because Homo sapiens is the most advanced rung on the ladder of evolution; for the latter because he has been assigned the role of master of creation in holy scripture. Any other difference in their respective views are mere quibbles.

    This presumption of human dominance over the Earth, all its contents, and its other inhabitants is the beginning of the metaphysical story which Ishmael elicits. There is also a middle and end to this story that are likewise uncovered in a similar well-paced dialogue. Quinn never let’s Ishmael miss a step in his progression back through the ‘obvious’ presumptions that we take for granted about the world; nor as he moves forward into the unfortunate implications of these presumptions which increasingly appear as disasters, for ourselves as well as the rest of the planet.

    Although Quinn is clearly making a cultural point, his principal message is very personal: What any one of us might think of as doing good, may very well be contributing to the substantial reduction not just of human well-being but also of life on Earth. Tempering exuberant idealism could be an essential modern virtue. Not being God demands caution as well as hard work. This doesn’t mean thinking smaller but bigger, with rather wider metaphysical horizons than we’ve allowed ourselves to have.

    * Ishmael = איש = ישמעאל or ish = man; אֵל or el = deity

    Postscript: I don’t think I’ve encountered reviews more polarised on Goodreads than for this book. Most ratings are either 5’s or 1’s, very few in between. I suspect there are two reasons for this. Some folk find the Socratic method annoying, either because it proceeds at a pace they find tedious or because they really can’t follow the step by step development involved. Others, I think, balk at the central theme of the book, namely the dangers of cultural idealism. This latter group is the ‘hard market’ for the book, I suppose, and simply doesn’t want to consider much less understand what Quinn is suggesting.

    Further postscript 23Feb18: https://harpers.org/archive/2019/03/t...

  6. Lori Lori says:

    This book was recommended to me from my Ecology teacher on Saturday. I bought it the same day because i really needed a decent read... i having been craving this all the time lately.
    I did not put it down until i was done with it two days later.
    The premise is a man talking to a gorilla... however simple and idiotic that may seem to you, this story reveals so eloquently what i have always believed to be the reasons for the way we live in modern society. It details the way in which our society has enslaved us and forced us to enact a story we have been told since the dawning of the agricultural revolution, one which we still are enacting today. Some things just don't sit right with a person, until they are fully spelled out, and then they REALLY don't sit right with you... I couldn't cry for this book, though i should have several times... I could only read on with a greater sense of Holy shit! This is truth. then i have felt in a very long while. My life will never be the same because of Ishmael. Read it now, and yours won't either. (my goal is to get at least 20 people i know to read this book, you should be one of them)

  7. Jesse Jesse says:

    A little story about Ishmael by Daniel Quinn:

    I first read this back in the fall of '99 for a college course. It was a time in my life where (for a variety of reasons, including a breakup of a long relationship) I was first began to think for myself, instead of think what others wanted me to think. This book completely wiped away the world view that my parents, friends, and teachers had put into my head for so many years, and then began the formation of my own view. Since then I have been a seeker.

    Synopsis:
    Alan Lomax responds to an ad in the paper that says Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest deisre to save the world. Apply in person. The ad turns out to have been placed by gorilla who then through telepathic conversation basically explains why things are the way they are in the world.

    I've found the simple message of this book to have a huge impact on my view of the environment and our human relation to it. Other things, such as the book Collapse by Jared Diamond, or Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, have also had effect, but Ishmael has been the most life-changing in this respect. This book made me aware of the horrible over-consumption of resources of human beings in everyday life. The world will not be saved by programs such as recycling or forest protection programs, because people are countering these programs everyday in their daily activities. What is needed is a change of view of our place in the world, and that's what Ishmael gave me.

  8. Esteban del Mal Esteban del Mal says:

    Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Behold the majesty of Curious George as he gets all dialogue-y on your ass! Your encounter will leave you changed! You, too, may find yourself flinging poop at civilization along with our simian savior!

    A telepathic gorilla develops something like consciousness, is happily able to flower under the attentive stewardship of a George Soros-type philanthropist and waxes philosophical to a disenchanted idealist. This book stinks of anthropological and ecological platitudes which I think you would be better served acquiring by taking a few puffs of the wacky weed and watching the Pearl Jam video for Do the Evolution.

    And something that seems to be missing from every review of this book I’ve read thus far -- the story’s narrator is barely unnerved by a telepathic gorilla. I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but if I ever tell you that my dog is talking to me, please contact the authorities. I’m sure I’ll thank you for it later. I mean, David Berkowitz does it, and he’s a serial killer; this guy does it, and he wants to roll back civilization to the hunter-gatherer stage. I’m down with Mother Earth and all that jazz, but psychopathology is psychopathology.

  9. Tatiana Tatiana says:

    I haven't finished this book yet but I probably won't because it sucks. First of all, it's supposed to be a novel but it's entirely didactic. The author has simply substituted this gorilla to preach at us in the author's voice. The viewpoint character is simple minded and vacuous to the point of not existing. In fact, he's just there as the foil or receptacle for the gorilla's teachings. The central thesis of the gorilla's thoughts, which he presents as unassailable fact, is the supposition that human population will ALWAYS increase to use all available food supply, something that simply isn't true in any of the developed countries. If it weren't for immigration, of course, the U.S. and most of Western Europe would have falling populations. The author dismisses this massive flaw in his edifice of cards by saying someone somewhere will eat the food or else people would stop growing it. Okay, so he then doesn't notice that if people stop growing food because there's nobody to eat it, then the population is limiting itself and the human species is not doing its job of multiplying, engulfing, and devouring as he claims it always must.

    It's the same old stuff the Club of Rome said in the 70s and so on and so on from Malthus to the present. It comes about because people don't realize that trends do change in response to changing situations. Women empowered with birth control to choose their family size have less children. Fishers who realize fish stocks are depleted do change their methods and either enact laws limiting catch sizes, or turn to farming, or become conservationists of wild species.

    The human species has lived off mother earth's bounty for all its childhood and adolescence, but it IS growing up, and will eventually nurture all the world's resources in a realistic way leading to complete sustainability. There's nothing improbable about that.

    Some of the things the author doesn't realize follow.

    In space the resources are truly unlimited. We're not in a closed petri dish. We just have to reach out and develop what's there.

    We make new resources all the time with advances in technology. Worthless sand becomes useful glass, then even more useful microchips. Black sludge becomes a fuel or a plastic container. The more we know the more we see worthless things around us turn into jewels under our hands.

    Before human stewardship, life on earth was far from safe and cozy. Asteroid impacts destroyed nearly all living things on several different occasions (Cambrian, Permian, Cretaceous, etc.) and could do so again, even more completely, if humans aren't technologically advanced enough to prevent it. The history of life is riddled with catastrophes that weren't caused by humans.

    There's so much more, I could write a novel. But you get the picture. Please save your efforts for some book that will entertain you or teach you something true. This one is useless for either.

  10. Max Ostrovsky Max Ostrovsky says:

    Although, purposefully didactic, it was beautiful. It read incredibly fast, but it sits with you for a very long time. Imagine eating something quick and cheap like a taco bell burrito only to discover that once it reached your stomach, it felt like a 7 course meal at a 5 star restaurant. Definitely plenty of intellectual bang for your buck.

    Lately, absurdly leftist books such as the previously reviewed Illuminatus! Trilogy have just pissed me off with their all we need is to love each other propaganda. Human existence can not encompass and explain all emotion. And Ishmael doesn't even try to do that. But it does, and very simply, lead the main character and through the main character, the reader, down the path of enlightenment. Much like describing the laws of gravity and aerodynamics, this book takes on the daunting task of coming up with a human law. A real human law. This book, in under 300 pages, gives the meaning of life. Don't look for me to give it away in this blog, but I will say this. The book will make you think. The educator, Ishmael, (who also happens to be a talking gorilla) leads the narrator and thus the reader through the thought process of figuring it out. The book will make you question everything you've ever been taught about religion, science, philosophy, and most importantly, human evolution.

    I can't say more about this book without going into the exact thought process, which will spoil the book for those who plan on reading it. I don't hold the pretension that everyone who reads my book and movie reviews rush out and buy books and movies based on them, but with this book, I'll stand behind it. Read it. It's a quick read. It's an easy read. And while the ending (and solution for saving the human race) is somewhat far fetched, or rather, no one will really do it, the least that will happen is that you will think.

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