Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A man answers an ad that says, “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” Expecting to find a charlatan, the man is surprised to find his new teacher is, in fact, a gorilla.
Like Socrates, this gorilla, Ishmael, uses questions to guide his pupil toward crucial knowledge. Ismael teaches his student to challenge some of his most deep-seated beliefs such as, the world was made for humans, humans are the ultimate culmination of biology, humans are inherently separate from (and above) nature, and that humans are fundamentally flawed in such a way as to make ruination of the planet inevitable.
The core of the book differentiates two human cultures. The author calls them the “takers” and the “leavers,” but they correspond to what we might call “us” and the “aboriginal peoples.” Takers are specialized, agricultural, and technologically advanced (if you’re reading this review on a computer and not chiseled on a cave wall, you, my friend, are a taker.)
The lives of “Leavers” aren’t that different from those of humans 10,000 years ago. They are tribal as opposed to (to borrow Desmond Morris’s term) super-tribal. [In a tribe everyone knows everyone else. Morris suggests that things go to shit –re: war, crime, and deviant behavior– in super-tribal societies.] Leavers live like animals in that they tend towards equilibrium within their ecosystem. Takers do not.
If you long for thrillers or potboilers, this isn’t the book for you. It’s a thinking person’s book. The nice thing about Ishmael’s use of the Socratic method is that one can think through the questions in parallel to the narrator’s discovery. In this way, the reader can install himself or herself into the conversation.
At the most generic level, the book’s value is in showing one how much one takes for granted. We can’t see forests for trees.
One may agree or disagree with the author, but either way one will be subjected to powerful food for thought. Some of the discussion may evoke a visceral emotional reaction that one may have trouble reconciling with logic, such as the discussion of the morality of feeding the starving.
The downside of the book is that the dialogue can be strained in places and it can get a bit repetitive. The latter serves to reinforce key concepts, but some of them feel as though they are reinforced inordinately. In making the narrating protagonist struggle, Quinn creates a lead who seems a bit dense sometimes. Also, as I indicated, the journey is by-and-large in the mind, and so the tension is limited. There is some drama when the narrator shows up one day to find that Ishmael has been evicted. However, this is resolved without too great a difficulty and they resume lessons with Ishmael’s irritability being the only change to be seen. There is drama at the end that will remain unspoiled herein.
I’d recommend this book as a thought-provoking exercise for the mind.
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