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Ishmael #1

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

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Librarian's note: An alternate cover edition can be found here

Must have an earnest desire to
save the world. Apply in person.

It was just a three-line 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.

266 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1992

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About the author

Daniel Quinn

58 books1,520 followers
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 & Fine Arts Department of the American Peoples Encyclopedia; when that was subsumed by a larger outfit and moved to New York, I stayed behind and moved into educational publishing, beginning at Science Research Associates (a division of IBM) and ending as Editorial Director of The Society for Vision Education (a division of the Singer Corporation).

In 1977 I walked away from SVE and this very successful career when it became clear that I was not going to able to do there what I really wanted to do...which was not entirely clear. A few months later I set my feet on a path that would change my life completely. It was a path made up of books -- or rather versions of a book that, after twelve years, would turn out to be ISHMAEL.

The first version, written in 1977-78, called MAN AND ALIEN, didn't turn out to be quite what I wanted, so wrote a second, called THE GENESIS TRANSCRIPT. Like the first version, this didn't satisfy me, so I wrote a third with the same title. THE BOOK OF NAHASH, abandoned unfinished, was the fourth version.

When I started writing version five, THE BOOK OF THE DAMNED in 1981, I was sure I'd found the book I was born to write. The versions that came before had been like rainy days with moments of sunshine. THIS was a thunderstorm, and the lines crossed my pages like flashes of lightning. When, after a few thousand words I came to a clear climax, I said, "This MUST be seen," so I put Part One into print. Parts Two and Three followed, and I began searching for the switch that would turn on Part Four... but it just wasn't there. What I'd done was terrific -- and complete in its own way -- but at last I faced the fact that the whole thing just couldn't be done in lightning strikes.

And so, on to versions six and seven (both called ANOTHER STORY TO BE IN). I knew I was close, and version eight was it -- the first and only version to be a novel and the first and only version inhabited by a telepathic gorilla named Ishmael.

ISHMAEL was a life-changing book. It began by winning the Turner Tomorrow Award, the largest prize ever given to a single literary work. It would come to be read in some 25 languages and used in classrooms from mid-school to graduate school in courses as varied as history philosophy, geography, archaeology, religion, biology, zoology, ecology, anthropology, political science, economics, and sociology.

But in 1992, when ISHMAEL was published, I had no idea what I might do next. My readers decided this for me. In letters that arrived by the bushel they demanded to know where this strange book came from, what "made" me write it. To answer these questions I wrote PROVIDENCE: THE STORY OF A FIFTY-YEAR VISION QUEST (1995).

But there were even more urgently important questions to be answered, particularly this one: "With ISHMAEL you've undermined the religious beliefs of a lifetime. What am I supposed to replace them with?" I replied to this with THE STORY OF B (1996).

The questions (and books) kept coming: Why did Ishmael have to die? This gave rise to MY ISHMAEL: A SEQUEL (1997), in which it's revealed that Ishmael was not only far from being dead but far from being finished with his work as a teacher. The question "Where do we go from here?" was the inspiration for BEYOND CIVILIZATION: HUMANITY'S NEXT GREAT ADVENTURE (1999), a very different kind of book.

With these questions answered (and 500 more on my website), I felt I was fundamentally finished with what might be called my teachings and ready to move on.

I had always taken as my guiding principle these words from André Gide: "What another would have done as well as you, do not do it. What another would have said as well as you, do not say it, written as well as you, do not write it.

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Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
May 27, 2018
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.
Profile Image for Anna.
35 reviews45 followers
September 6, 2008
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.
108 reviews11 followers
March 27, 2008
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?”

“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!!!!!!

Profile Image for kevin.
21 reviews12 followers
March 26, 2007
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

Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
April 12, 2023
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...
Profile Image for Lauren (Shakespeare & Whisky).
256 reviews442 followers
August 17, 2016
The top three reviews on this book are salty 1 star reviews. 0_o

Even if you don't agree with the philosophical underpinnings of this novel it is a thought-provoking tale of great power.

The story is allegorical but even the surface story is an emotional and engaging tale.

I found this deeply enjoyable. It is certainly worth your time to take a look even if you don't agree with the philosophy.
Profile Image for Lori.
15 reviews12 followers
June 14, 2012
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)
Profile Image for Aaron.
11 reviews2 followers
September 8, 2008
This book was worth reading but many parts bothered me. First Ishmael makes incorrect statements about how nature works, and asserts that humans have violated these rules, which is the source of our discontents. E.g. Ishmael states that other species do not attack competitors. This is false. Species will attack predators whenever there is an adaptive advantage to do so. Ishmael also states that predators never take more than they can eat. This is also false. I read an article about how predators like lions, if locked in a contained area with a bunch of prey, will systematically kill every single one even though they couldn't hope to eat that much. Also, Ishmael says that humans have chosen to exempt themselves from the laws of nature in order to increase their numbers. If any other species COULD do this, then they WOULD. It is simple Darwinism that whatever behavior spreads more genes will become more common. Further, Ishmael's message seems to have "law of the jungle" implications for society. Ishmael expressly condemns giving food when some area has a famine. He says we should give birth control instead. It seems to me we should give BOTH. Ishmael also says that it is inevitable that humans will overpopulate the earth when you increase the food supply. This is also false. It has been demonstrated consistently that when women are educated, the birth rate drops, such that first world countries are often depopulating despite having an extremely good food supply.

What this book comes down to is that Daniel Quinn does not understand the way nature works. The simple message that man acts as if the world was made for him is well taken, but for me the good parts were lost in the mire.
Profile Image for Esteban del Mal.
191 reviews64 followers
February 10, 2021
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 an animal 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.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
148 reviews130 followers
January 27, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Max Ostrovsky.
564 reviews57 followers
May 11, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Jess the Shelf-Declared Bibliophile.
2,043 reviews629 followers
June 14, 2021
I was really excited to read this but it's just not connecting with me or pulling me in, so sadly I'm making the decision to DNF. Perhaps I'll try again one day.
Profile Image for KamRun .
376 reviews1,446 followers
February 28, 2019
ای آدم چرا خود را پنهان می‌کنی؟ برداشت آزاد از پیدایش 3 : 8

مردم شونه بالا می‌اندازن و می‌گن خب این تاوانیه که باید برای لوله‌کشی آب گرم، تهویه‌ی مطبوع، ماشین و سایر مسائل بپردازیم. اما من می‌گم تاوانی که شما پرداختید، تاوان انسان شدن نیست، حتی تاوان داشتن چیزایی که الان گفتم هم نیست. این تاوان اجرای داستانی‌ه که بشر را در نقش دشمن جهان به بازی گرفته؛ جهانی که باید فتح بشه و تحت سلطه‌ش قرار بگیره

کتاب دیالوگی به شیوه دیالکتیکی میان یک گوریل سخنگو (اسماعیل) و یک انسان است که در غالبی داستان گونه گنجانده شده . محور این گفتگوی نسبتا بلند، تاریخ حقیقی انسان – غیر از آنچه امروز توسط گروه‌های مختلف روایت می‌شود - و نجات تمدن و گونه‌ی انسانی از انقراض حتمی است. اسماعیل در خلال این گفتگو به تبیین رابطه‌ی میان انسان و طبعیت – آنطور که هست و آنطور که باید باشد –، قوانین خودساخته‌ی انسانی و قوانین حاکم بر طبعیت می‌پردازد. مخاطب اگر در این مسیر با اسماعیل همراه شود و استدلالی‌های علمی و منطقی‌اش را بشوند، در پایان سفر نظر متفاوتی نسبت به جایگاه خودش در جهان پیدا می‌کند، که شاید یکی از نتایج ملموس آن، ترک نسبی خودمحوری و گرایش به یکی پنداشتن خود با طبعیت و دیگر جانداران و نوعی وحدت باشد.

توضیح مفصل‌تر درباره‌ی کتاب

پی‌نوشت: به خوانندگان این کتاب، باغ وحش انسانی دزموند موریس را پیشنهاد می‌کنم
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
656 reviews7,107 followers
January 15, 2012
Mystified, inspired, depressed and exhilarated by the same book; it was bound to polarize readers. Definitely the best (philosophical) novel based on the Socratic dialogue method I have ever read - many times better than the pale imitations it spawned. The call to action of the book is the real mystery - Ishmael poses the final question to us in the back of his poster... Hoping to put up a full review soon.
Profile Image for Arun Divakar.
796 reviews393 followers
March 24, 2013
I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.

No matter how many times I watch The Matrix , the one snippet of dialog that resonates the best with me is this. Even the first time I saw the movie, I turned this over and over in my mind and could find agreement with this.

In the microcosm of my little World, to one side of my house was a sizeably large tract of land lush with greenery. There were trees abound and they buzzed with the activity of birds. The place had quite a lot of rodents, snakes and cats and the occassional dog or two.Weekends and early mornings were a sight to behold for to see the sun shining down on that wonderful carpet of greenery or the rain falling on it were totally blissful. One evening, coming back from work I was treated to a most horrifying scene. The trees had been felled and the grass cut away and it looked a wasteland to my eyes. To my questions of what happened, the answer was An apartment complex is coming up there . Imagine waking up to a concrete monstrosity looming above you ! There was nothing more heartbreaking than not hearing the birds or the little creatures anymore.

A few months ago in the northern district of Calicut and specifically at a place named Wayanad in Kerala, men mercilessly hunted down and killed a wild Tiger. The animal was proclaimed a menace to society and a witch hunt was pronounced to hunt it down. Instead of tranquilizing and releasing to the wild, they shot it dead. Do you what the crime of the animal was ? It killed a cow ! And where did it kill the cow ? In a town which bordered the forest ! There are hardly 1200 Tigers left in the wild now. Poachers are never too far away and if we add such bloodlust to the mix, this King of the Indian jungle will not live for long. I do not live under any illusion that my children would some day see a Tiger in the wild ! They might be images frozen in the memory of people by that time. Jungles and greenery disappear and apartments and shopping malls take their space. Water shortage is acute now and draught is no longer a distinct possibility. As nature comes full circle, we have slowly begun to reap what we have sown. I do not share fully the aggressive judgement of Agent Smith but yes I do believe that man's insistence that the world was made for him will bring about our collective downfall.

Ishmael became a favorite to me for it spoke in the same language that I think in. The question it poses has been relevant for decades now : Does the World belong to Man ? Or Does Man belong to the World ? In writing, this involves just the interchange of two words but in reality it could mean the survival of this planet and countless species. The ideas focus on the struggle between an agrarian society and a society that lived in harmony with nature. How inevitably the more powerful agrarian part inserted itself as the rulers and slowly but surely began the destruction of the Earth. I however, see a more evolved threat now for we have even started swallowing up our farmlands. A large number of farmers in India commit suicide after being fully swallowed up by financial debts and most farmlands get converted to multistoreyed buildings overnight. So is the agrarian society the antagonist now ? For a multitude of reasons, it has got to be a technocratic society that has assumed this mantle of being the rulers of Earth now. At first was the agricultural revolution and then came the industrial revolution and silently but surefootedly came the technological revolution which now holds the planet in its sway.

The ideas in this book were powerful enough to unlock a lot of angst that I had buried deep within me. Highly recommended ! Those who love nature as much as humanity should definitely read this one !
Profile Image for Lobeck.
118 reviews20 followers
June 30, 2007
i could crap a better book than this. it's condescending and trying to be profound but very simplistic. if you've already been introduced to basic ideas about we're ruining the earth and need to get our act together, you'll learn nothing new here. and the whole wise teacher/pupil thing is so cliche. so what if he's a gorilla?
Profile Image for Ian.
52 reviews4 followers
May 15, 2008
The quintessential hippie college book. Years after college, I found it left on a beach in Hawaii, like so many LaRouche pamplets on university campuses, and read it in a few sittings. To anyone with half a brain and some college education, a lot of this book will seem painfully obvious, as this type of thinking has so permeated public conciousness in recent years. But if you can turn the volume down on your censors even a little, there's much to be appreciated here. I will never look at zoos the same way...
Profile Image for Kevin.
527 reviews108 followers
December 4, 2022
"Until Darwin and the paleontologists came along to tack three million years of human life onto your history, it was assumed in your culture that the birth of man and the birth of your culture were simultaneous events."

Part allegory, part parable and part exemplum. I can't say that Ishmael was a life altering experience for me, but it masterfully articulated notions that I have long believed were true. Quinn's use of fiction to promote positive real-life change is nothing short of brilliant. Reading this gave me a sense of impending peril, tempered by cautious optimism and a call to action.
Profile Image for Summer.
137 reviews185 followers
May 3, 2016
At first I hesitated reading this book, I thought it wasn't my thing. ... But boy oh boy, was I wrong. It blew my mind. It broadened my horizons and it even got me interested in the history and evolution. This book is really interesting and it's a reminder of how badly we treat mother Earth.
Profile Image for Kevin Kuhn.
Author 2 books586 followers
October 22, 2017
First, let me acknowledge that I am very late to this game. Daniel Quinn wrote the first version of this novel in 1977, and published the version that I read in 1992. My only excuse is that I was knee-deep in my first job and still becoming accustomed to business travel, marriage, and well, real life. Then came three kids, resulting in my missing about a decade’s worth of music and literature. In all honesty, despite this novel being a NY Times Best Seller, an international phenomenon, and required reading in many High Schools and Universities, I only became aware of it this last year (2017). I have had several people, including Kirkus relate it to my novel, so I felt obliged to read it.
The book has an unlikely plot. It begins with a man finding this ad:
TEACHER SEEKS PUPIL – must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply In person.

This catches the eye of the main character, who does indeed apply in person. The teacher turns out to be a very large gorilla named Ishmael capable of telepathic communication. The rest of the novel largely follows the gorilla teachings and the slow acceptance and understanding of the pupil. The novel caught me right away, both with the improbable storyline, but also with the philosophy from a non-human perspective. It begins with an intriguing thought, that we are so ingrained in our way of thinking, that we only see the world as existing for us to conquer. We cannot see the perspective of the gorilla, that the world exists for all creatures, not simply for man. Quinn also makes an interesting point that man may slow or stop the evolutionary process, both for himself and for others.

However, at some point, Quinn lost me. Without spoiling too much of the central theme, Quinn argues that man needs to take a step backward towards our hunter/gather past. I understand his rationale and he makes some fantastic arguments. After all, few people would debate that we are struggling with violence, ecological disasters, and over-population. Where he loses me is that a return to a more primitive time (what he calls Leavers) puts Mother Nature or God back into control, rather than man. If we give up our technology, our industry, and our agriculture, we will return to harmony with the earth. Population gets out of control, no problem, without technology and agriculture, Mother Nature will cull our herds with disease, starvation, and death. Quinn asserts that if we expand our food production, our population with continue to expand and outstrip our production.

I get frustrated with the romanticizing of pure nature, the viewpoint that nature is a gentle, harmonic power that only employs violence when necessary and largely allows all creatures to live in peace. The reality is that nature is a harsh, unforgiving force that regularly dishes out suffering, misery, and death. When we fantasize about a return to nature, we think about a warm summer day, harvesting wild berries and nuts. We tend to forget about freezing winters, drought, and disease. In my opinion, starvation and disease is not an acceptable answer for population control. Quinn never answers the question of how far back do we go? Do we give up modern medicine? If a person contracts polio, is that just nature culling the herd, removing the weak, so that we continue to evolve?

Having said this, I still believe this is an excellent and important novel. It makes you think, it makes you look at our civilization differently. It makes you question your ingrained beliefs. And these are questions worth asking. Do I believe we need to stop pollution and destruction of the rain forests – yes. Do I believe we need to find more harmony with nature – yes. Do I believe we need to control our population growth – of course. However, I have more faith in humanity. I think it’s possible to achieve this with education, cooperation, and love. I don’t believe we need a wholesale return to a pre-agricultural existence to save the world. However, I appreciate Quinn’s arguments and questions. We need more literature that gets us out of our way of thinking, that makes us uncomfortable, and forces us to think more deeply about our relationship with our planet and ourselves. I glad I read this and I look forward to reading Quinn’s other novels.
Profile Image for Jensownzoo.
320 reviews27 followers
February 19, 2009
Well, this is a sociology/ecology lecture loosely disguised as a novel that makes you sit back and say "why didn't I think of that, it's so obvious to me now!" And it's done in a way that continually builds on the presented ideas so that you understand the concepts from the ground up. Loved it. Think everyone should read it.
Profile Image for Gary.
327 reviews198 followers
January 3, 2018
I had somewhat of an idea of what this book was about before I ever started it. I am sure this will piss some people off...but if you are more concerned with the corporate "takers", more concerned about you, or your parents investments, care more about being the "haves",and could care less about the "leavers" or the "have nots" you will not "get" this book. You will not like it....

If you care about the leeches in this world robbing us of our environment for business, like the Kochs brothers,for example, you won't like this book.

If you care about the environment and about the "leavers",and making sure our descendents will have an earth to live and thrive on due to protecting our environment, you will "get" this book,and give it the high ratings it deserves. If you are more concerned about mankind , as a whole, instead of greed,and to make the mighty buck, you will get this book.

The style was difficult to grasp at first,and if you stopped at 100 pages,and didn't finish this book, you missed it and all its glory. The discussions between the characters is all leading up to what's important , what's truly important in this world, which is having a world at all.....instead of the Koch brothers,and others pouring chemicals into our air, water, our soil, our food, to make more money instead of allowing the earth to thrive as it should. Monsanto,and other companies should be ashamed. WE should be ashamed for allowing it.

So, that's my take on it. Read it, or start it again, if you dare.....if you have an open mind....and if you really want a healthy place for yourself & your descendants to live on our planet.....I truly wonder if it's already too late...... then I think the point of the novel is....what are we gonna do about it now to try to solve our problems due to what we've already done,and continue to do to our home??
Profile Image for Marty.
33 reviews2 followers
April 9, 2008
At a Borders parking lot back home, it was spray-painted into the pavement "READ ISHMAEL"
That's basically how I first heard about it and read it. Especially since I parked over the spray-painted message time and time again.
Would people really read this book if it was called "Ricardo" or "Paul"...I say no.
So thanks for giving it this name that nobody has except for people obsessed with Moby Dick, which I have not come across.

I think intellectuals like to say that this book changed their mind on the way they thought about things.
It's from the perspective of the other side.

I liked it, but didn't love it.

Personally, I get agitated when people constantly pick this book or something like Herman Hesse as something that changed their life or their philosophy of things.
I can't explain why, but most people I know are really limited as to what they read and they read the SAME type of books.
I just want to stab them in the face since it's the same type of people who are wannabe intellectuals that say this.
I certainly am not an intellectual, but I try to be.
But there's a certain type of intellectual that I definitely make an attempt NOT to be.
And that is people like my ex-girlfriend. Ha. There you go. It finally comes out. My ex-girlfriend ruined this book for me and has caused me to hate a legion of people in the process. Thank you.

Anyways, this book was okay.
Profile Image for April (The Steadfast Reader).
406 reviews47 followers
April 24, 2009
Definitely a hippie book, at first I thought the philosophy behind it was all about saving nature, the rainforests, blah blah.. :> But it's really about something deeper, challenging human 'nature' as we know it. Truly an amazing book.
Profile Image for Markmisfit5000.
21 reviews1 follower
August 8, 2010
I'm not impressed with this book at all. As a novel, it fails to entertain. As a manifesto, it is too vague and shallow to enact any meaning. What frustrated me most was Quinn's lack of proof to substantiate his scientific rhetoric and his cut & paste techniques when addressing religion.

What Quinn fails to recognize is that humans need more than just food. "Man cannot live by bread alone." If we returned to "Leaver" status and were fulfilled with natural-growing sustenance, man would still be restless. If, as Ishmael purports, that feeding ourselves would only take 2-3 hours a day, and we'd have the rest of the day to do whatever, we would not be content to laze around all day. They would do something with their time. They would need something to give their lives meaning. That's a key component of humanity that Quinn's novel fails to address. Humans are different from other animals because in that they are existential and meta-cognitive beings. Humans need something to give their lives purpose. Quinn shows an obvious lack of knowledge in many of the fields of study he pulls from to fill this book, including creative writing. It seems to me that the author had a hard time getting his academic work published, and decided to write a "novel" with a talking ape. He sensationalized what was otherwise shoddy academic writing and was able to sell it.
While this book made me think, I cringe when I see others take his arguments about religion, food production, and population control seriously.
Profile Image for Eloise Hampson.
111 reviews1,848 followers
June 10, 2023
Dnf- might pick up again in the future but I was bored pretty quickly into it and got 40% of the way done and wasn't any more hooked so just decided to DNF
Profile Image for John Clark.
20 reviews21 followers
September 13, 2010
We, the people of our culture, are the inheritors and administrators of a grave evil. Strong evidence of this evil is blazed in the destruction of our environment, which is clearly caused by humans. Sadly, we have been taught, and we continue to teach others, that this evil is actually good: not that we should be destroying our environment, but that it is a consequence of an otherwise noble pursuit of our culture. With "Ishmael", Daniel Quinn bravely explores and exposes the destructive consequences of the assumptions of this culture.

"Ishmael" is a very important book, if the previous paragraph wasn't dramatic enough for you. It asks us some very hard questions, starting with why are we destroying our beautiful home, the Earth? Next up is does it have to be this way? (Spoiler: no.)

The book does have a number of idiosyncrasies that have alienated a number of readers; still, I exhort you to read this book and consider its arguments. Yes, the eponymous character is a telepathic gorilla; this is simply a device to project the arguments beyond the imposed isolation of civilization, to make us think about what nature could be teaching us if we tried to listen to it. Because of this, the book is technically fiction, but it is a thin veneer around a philosophy lecture. Yes, the author is a part of the culture he is criticizing. Yes, he uses fairly standard gender-weighted language ("man", "mankind", "Mother Culture"). How do either of these detract from his arguments? There are also some more substantive problems with the book, like the fact that he encourages the development of civilization without defining what he means by that, but these problems do not affect his main conclusions.

While this book contains philosophy and ambitious historical analysis wrapped in a thin candy coating, the philosophy is still presented very clearly. Quinn is not shy about his ideas; indeed, he lays them out in excruciating detail. For however much you may like or dislike his style, you still must account honestly for the substance of his arguments and his conclusions.
Profile Image for مهسا.
247 reviews13 followers
September 1, 2017
جورج اورول جایی گفته بود : کتاب خوب(خوب به معنای عام) قرار نیست اطلاعات،دانش جدید یا چیز غریبی به شعور کسی اضافه کنه،بلکه چیزی رو میگه که درصورت نظم‌دادن به افکارت،خودت می‌تونی بهش برسی
و اسماعیل دقیقا همین بود
داستان(اسطوره) آفرینش،تکامل،تاریخ تمدن و سرمایه‌داری و الخ رو کسی نیست که ندونه ولی تقریبا هیچ‌کس عادت نداره در اون قالبی که "باید" بهش فکر کنه
مجموعا عالی بود و حرف زیادی درموردش نمی‌تونم بزنم،فقط اسماعیل از کاراکتر مقابل خواست که چیزی رو که بهش آموخته رو به صدنفر دیگه آموزش بده و اونا رو هم تشویق کنه که به صدنفر دیگه آموزش بدن
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,495 reviews378 followers
July 6, 2018
Intriguing story of a man and his gorilla teacher. Slow beginning but definitely picks up in interest. A challenge to our ordinary values and thinking. It speaks to the need for a new way of seeing: well, our old way is clearly not working! I haven't read the other books in the series but would like to. A creative way of exploring different possibilities of being in the world.
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