Book Review - Ishmael


Ishmael is a philosophical novel written by Daniel Quinn that was published in 1992. The story begins with a newspaper ad: "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The unnamed narrator decides to check it out and finds himself in a room with a telepathically-communicating gorilla named Ishmael. The basic plot of the book involves a Socratic dialogue between Ishmael and the narrator focusing on "how things came to be this way" for humankind.

The concepts covered during their conversation include an exploration of the mythological thinking that forms the underpinning of our modern civilization's consciousness and consequential actions, that humans are not the pinnacle of evolution (nor exempt from the laws of nature or the rule of the Gods), and how the story we have chosen to enact has contributed to our ethical understanding of the world and a potential societal and environmental collapse that lurks just beyond today's horizon. There is also a story woven throughout the main Socratic dialogue that features Ishmael's history as a member of a menagerie and adoption by a wealthy benefactor.

Some of the major themes in the book include the idea that the Book of Genesis from the Bible truly refers to the decimation of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies by agricultural societies, that eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil convinced modern humans that they have the right to decide which species live and die, and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with people—rather it is the story told for the last ten thousand years by Mother Culture that has been enacted that is harmful. This last aspect of the book really reminded me of Charles Eisentein's The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, which echoes and expands upon a lot of the points Quinn makes about that story.

Following Ishmael are two books penned by Quinn that form a loose trilogy: The Story of B, a 1996 spiritual sequel, and My Ishmael, a 1997 followup. So far I have only read the first book in this trilogy, but hope to make my way through the rest of it in due time.

I greatly enjoyed this novel. Early on, it reminded me of Sophie's World, a novel by Jostein Gaarder that was the center of discussion during an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge course in high school. I suppose I drew that comparison due to the format of the book—a wise teacher with an understanding of philosophy uses the Socratic dialogue method to teach philosophical concepts to a pupil. The method involves the pupil working through the concepts "out loud" throughout the book's pages, which allows the reader to absorb them in a different manner than if they had been presented directly from the teacher. Another book I have read that uses the same style is Plato's The Republic. Although it isn't my favorite format, I think it may be growing on me because I really enjoyed Ishmael, and a major reason for that was the way the book allowed me to work through the concepts alongside the pupil. There is quite a bit to absorb from this novel, and it definitely warrants a re-read at some point.

Overall, I found Ishmael to be an excellent book and would recommend it to anyone frustrated with the current state of the world, an interest in human and evolutionary history and/or philosophy, and environmental activists that would like to see positive global changes come to fruition. With knowledge like this in our toolbox, I firmly believe humanity could rethink its position in nature's hierarchy, construct a new story for modern culture to enact, and reverse its course for the betterment of all life on Earth and beyond.

5/5 stars. 263 pages