Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael

ImageI first heard of Ishmael in a semantics course taught by my adviser in college. Since I had (and still have) a lot of respect for her teaching and her work, it seemed natural to give it a read. A classmate readily lent it to me (he never got it back). After a couple of weeks in which I barely got through the first few parts of the book, I laid it aside. While I found some of the ideas expressed in the beginning apropos to some personal experience and my studies, the writing style quickly bored me, and I moved on. Four years later, I pulled it from my bookshelf and began berating myself for abandoning it.

The book’s structure is straightforward. A man, somewhat at odds with humankind and himself, answers a personal in the paper for a teacher seeking a willing student. That teacher turns out to be a 400lb. male gorilla. Ishmael proceeds to turn the man’s world upside down through a simple, one-on-one Socratic instruction on the destructive nature of society and people.

This is where the simplicity ends. Weighty topics such as agriculture and sin run throughout (if that juxtaposition seems odd, read the book). Ishmael reads more like a philosophical treatise than fiction, and it unabashedly addresses several unconscious assumptions about history and the human narrative. It divides the world into two different groups, the Takers and the Leavers, and challenges the conventional definition of civilization. Ishmael does not mind stepping on toes – both religion and science-based viewpoints are treated equally, in that both place civilized man in a self-absorbed position, bent on unsustainable expansion. For me, it directly challenged the very literal interpretations of the Bible I was taught as a child and the more recently added emphases on human rights, equality, and social justice that an education in liberal arts provides.

In a way, this is the most environmental book there could ever be.

That may clue you in as to why it has become immediately relevant to me. Yesterday, I began a yearlong fellowship with an environmental non-profit in Massachusetts that works to provide cost-effective financial and environmental solutions for home and business owners. They do many things, and their website can be found here. It may sound banal or run-of-the-mill, but it is the furthest thing from it – it is the chance of a lifetime, to work with passionate people that provide help in a non-judgmental way. That may sound too kumbaya for the cool kids, but it is the cutting edge of modern environmentalism.

What does this have to do with Ishmael? There is a certain valorization of hunter-gatherer society expressed throughout the book, a low-impact lifestyle that would leave many of the most enthusiastic sustaina-warriors in the dust. Man should seem himself as part of nature, not distinct in the domineering sense that has ruled, according to the author, the past several millennia. Words like servant and steward come to mind. Qualities of leadership. At the same time, the teacher stresses the necessity of diversity – biological, cultural, and, I would add, linguistic – a reoccurring theme in my own life, and one that resonates deeply.

In some ways, the author, Daniel Quinn, does not mind painting cultures and society with a broad brush. The text has a way of creating idealized notions that seem so ready for holes that he should not have been ignorant of them from the outset (and I somehow doubt he was). Some are angered by the bluntness with which he addresses the issue of overpopulation, poverty, and food production. Others are irritated with his writing style and the functional quality of his fiction. Many more do not like the taste of the medicine he prescribes.

In many ways, Ishmael has affirmed several choices I have made recently, and that is in no way a small comfort to me in these postgraduate times.

Pages: 263 FoA Pages: 367 (Total number of pages reported on by Friends of Atticus)


6 thoughts on “Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael

  1. I share a similar experience with you in reading Ishmael. Read it years ago, set it aside, in the process of trying to get back into it now. There are many significant and powerful ideas within the book – that our path is shaped by the narrative we craft but cannot see, that we cannot handle being subject to the same laws as the rest of the biotic community, but I can see how it can be a somewhat offputting and polarizing book, from its dialogue style and its heavy-handedness in attempting to convey a message.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I relate to your experience. I remember the challenges I had connecting with the book my first time reading it as an assigned book in high school freshman English and rediscovering Quinn in college. Thanks for the insight into the book!

    Have you read any of Quinn’s speeches and essays? I’m a particular fan of “A Path of Hope for the Future” (http://www.ishmael.org/Education/Writings/houston_youth.cfm) and “Reaching for the Future with All Three Hands” (http://www.ishmael.org/Education/Writings/kentstate.cfm). Quinn’s and Fuller’s Laws discussed towards the end of “A Path of Hope” provide great insight for social change.

  3. Trey McCain says:

    Isaac: I may be especially sensitive from the recent emphasis my new job is pushing, as a solution-oriented organization.

    Steven: I have yet to eve read the sequels to Ishmael, and I’ll admit to knowing little of the author, outside of the acclaim he received for this book. But I’ll give the speeches you posted a read.

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