Book 376: Ishmael – Daniel Quinn

Quinn, Daniel - IshmaelAs a part of every episode of Come Read with Me, I ask my friends to recommend a book. I do this because I know it will take me out of my comfort zone, but I also do it because it helps me get to know them better. Mike from Episode 5 where we discussed the first half of the Hyperion Cantos recommended this and WOW.

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books that continues to grow on me the further I get away from it. I only rated it “4 out of 5” on Goodreads, but I’m already wondering if as the ideas presented in the book sink in if I will adjust that even higher. I looked into the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award (aka read the Wikipedia link) and found it interesting, but I’m not sure if it does what the award wanted. Ishmael is incredibly creative and I think does most of what the award wanted, but I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t on the committee.

The premise of the book is that a gorilla, Ishmael, learns to harness his intelligence and then uses it to teach his observations to humans one at a time. Every person prior to the unnamed narrator fails and this seems to be the last time Ishmael will try to help humanity find the solution to their problems.

Although I struggled with the solution, which I think will become much more obvious the further I get from the novel, I found the story and the teaching fascinating. This really hit home when Ishmael explained scientific laws. If I had a teacher, explain laws the way Quinn does through Ishmael, I very well could’ve ended up in science.

“The laws of aerodynamics don’t provide us with a way of defying the law of gravity. I’m sure you understand that. They simply provide us with a way of using the air as a support. A man sitting in an airplane is subject to the law of gravity in exactly the way we’re subject to it sitting here. Nevertheless the man sitting in the plan obviously enjoys a freedom we lack: the freedom of the air.” (105)

Connecting the unchangeable law to something as abstract and beautiful as flying and freedom of the air made it so much easier for me to understand both gravity and aerodynamics. This simplicity with which Quinn explained these was astounding. Perhaps this comes from having had my mind opened by the earlier conversations, but I was floored at how simple everything seemed.

2015 08-25 Ishmael DiagramsAdd in that “Mother Culture,” as Quinn described our predominant Taker culture had my hackles raised as soon as I started reading. Honestly though, I didn’t have any issues thinking gorillas could speak or even achieve higher cognitive thinking so that wasn’t a problem, and that made what was taught through the stories that much more believable. I won’t even go into the idea of the “Takers” and the “Leavers” as it took most of the book for me to really make sense of what Quinn was talking about (as it should). I don’t think I will seek out the second two novels (The Story of B and My Ishmael), but if they come across my bookshelf at some point in the future I might give them a chance.

Recommendation: I think everyone should read this. It has an all-encompassing worldview and even offers suggestions how to change it. It reminded me a lot of The Witch of Portobello, in that they both approach how to help humanity survive through different means. I would say I prefer Coelho’s more, but that’s because it wasn’t as taxing on my mental capacities.

Opening Line: “The first time I read the ad, I choked and cursed and spat and threw the paper to the floor.”

Closing Line: “WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOME FOR MAN?” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)

Additional Quotes from Ishmael
“I didn’t want a guru or a kung fu master or a spiritual director. I didn’t want to become a sorcerer or learn the zen of archery or meditate or align my chakras or uncover past incarnations. Arts and disciplines of that kind are fundamentally selfish; they’re all designed to benefit the pupil—not the world. I was after something else entirely, but it wasn’t in the Yellow Pages or anywhere else that I could discover.” (5)

“They made an ingenious and disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately failed, because they were unable to find the bars of the cage. If you can’t discover what’s keeping you in, the will to get out soon becomes confused and ineffectual.” (25)

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.” (84)

“At the same time, it should be noted that ancientness is a great validator among the people of your cultures—so long as it’s restricted to that function. For example, the English want all their institutions—to be as ancient as possible (even if they’re not). Nevertheless, they themselves don’t live as the ancient Britons lived, and haven’t the slightest inclination to do so. Much the same can be said of the Japanese. They esteem the values and traditions of wiser, nobler ancestors and deplore their disappearance, but they have no interest in living the way those wiser, nobler ancestors lived. In short, ancient customs are nice for institutions, ceremonies, and holidays, but Takers don’t want to adopt them for everyday living.” (202)

“‘The Leaver life-style isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live—and agricultralists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers.’ He paused and shook his head. ‘What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Leaver life is not an antiquated thing that is “back there” somewhere. Your task it not to reach back but to reach forward.” (250)

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3 thoughts on “Book 376: Ishmael – Daniel Quinn

  1. Pingback: August Recap 2015 | The Oddness of Moving Things

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