Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

This week has treated me well, but it’s only Wednesday and I haven’t yet had a single class. Still, I choose this moment to be optimistic. There’s a thin layer of snow on the ground, I made a chocolate pie, and this morning I finally finished Ishmael.

I’m actually nervous about writing this review, because I have no idea how to do this book justice. Ishmael is about a man with “an earnest desire to save the world” who becomes pupil to an incredibly wizened gorilla- Ishmael.

Yes, that’s basically it. The book doesn’t actually have what could be called a plot- the story of the man and the gorilla is a framing device for a very thorough philosophical discussion. And it was actually done really brilliantly. The book is 80% dialogue, which makes it an unusually quick read for such a heavy topic, and starts off by assuring you that you don’t have to remember everything that they say- the journey will change you, and how is not important. I actually found that very helpful, because I’m always worried about comprehending this difficult philosophy.

So what is Ishmael’s lesson to our nameless narrator? Man sucks. Seriously, this book is that cynical. Only it’s actually much more compelling and shocking than that. What Ishmael teaches the narrator is that man believes that it is his prerogative to destroy the world- of course man doesn’t make this decision expressly, and no one lives with the intention of destroying the world, but we’re all more-or-less aware that this will be the end result of our continued existence, but we’re not going to stop. Because you can’t just stop existing. As the narrator says, “You can’t just stop enacting a story.”

And really, there’s no way for me to explain this book or the theories explained in it, because I’m pretty sure Daniel Quinn did a marvelous job in as few words as possible, and that took him 263 pages.

One of the things that really worked for this story is that Ishmael didn’t just EXPLAIN everything. There were very few giant, tedious paragraphs like you usually expect, because everything was exchanged. He gave his student the evidence he needed to draw the conclusions Ishmael wanted him to draw. In this way, the reader is forced to come to the conclusions alongside the narrator- or at least, that’s how it was for me. I actually got annoyed a few times because the narrator took so long to get it, but I don’t blame the author for this. And there was a lot I wouldn’t have gotten without the narrator’s help. He knew more about history than I did.

So really, I’m afraid I can’t actually go into the story farther than this without spoiling anyone else’s reading experience. Rest assured that it was a very good, very readable book, but more than that, it really makes you think- look around, check it all out, what do you see? It’s also a little disheartening, though, because this was written almost 19 years ago, and things still haven’t changed that way Ishmael would have wanted them to.

I read this book on recommendation by my brother, who had been assigned to read it for school and then made everyone else in our family read it. Well… Both of our parents and me. None of the other sisters. Not that he’s told me that much about what he thinks of the book, except that it’s really good. The rec pretty much played out thusly:

Brother: Hey, you should read this.

He then proceeded to throw the book at me. And I was a little miffed, so I read War for the Oaks and Memoirs of a Geisha first. He never reads what I recommend him.

I got a more helpful opinion from my dad. He said, “It’s really easy to take this book and just be cynical about it. What it really wants is for you to go and do something.” The problem is that, as Ishmael explains, it takes an incredible feat of thinking outside the box to come up with something you, the individual, can do to change the world. All he could really tell the narrator was to teach- spread this lesson to hundreds of people, so that they can spread it to more hundreds, and that’s the only way to do it. Yet even that might seem ineffectual. It’s like ‘Pay it Forward’- you explain it to a bunch of people, but you don’t know how they’re going to use the information, and in the meantime you’re only one individual.

Daniel Quinn wrote a sister-book to this called “My Ishmael”, in which Ishmael takes a second student in the form of a twelve year-old girl. That sounds really very interesting and I might read it.

Fun fact: When Max read the title “Ishmael,” he thought of the biblical character. When I read it, I thought of the first line of “Moby Dick,” as read by Matilda at the end of the movie. Neither were in any way relevant to the story. Cool, though.

Alright…. Next in my pile I’ve got two fifth-grade level books from the class I’m… assisting, which I’ve had since October, so I should really just get them over with. I actually misplaced them for a while. I might just make one pseudo-review post for both books, or bypass them altogether. After that I’ve got a book borrowed from my dad, and one bought for me by my dad, because he’s awesome. Sometime I need to go to the library and inter-library loan a couple books from V’s list.

MEANWHILE, I’ve got an English paper to work on (though not until my teacher emails me back), psych modules to read, aaand a psych paper to be written sometime in the next fifteen days. Also, a canvas to paint. Crap, I should really work on that one…. Might do that… Or modules. I was going to do modules but then I remembered the painting. Oh dear…

Anyway, I’m adding this to my recommendations list, which is way over there on the top of the page, and you should all click there to go pick your next read.

Published in: on December 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The name Ishmael and its biblical reference did reflect on the story. Ishmael is the oldest son of Abraham. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t have kids, so Sarah said, have my maid, we need an heir. The maid had a child, Ishmael. Sarah immediately, of course, then gets pregnant. She gives birth to Isaac. So, now, of course, Ishmael and the maid (named Hagar) have to go. They are banished and the Hebrew line continues through Isaac. It’s an imperfect analogy, but you can see the idea of the “older” “rightful” line being cast aside for the new.

    • I see it. I think this book was intended for a target audience who were at least familiar with biblical and ancient history, which I’m not. It’s sort of something that would enhance the story, but not knowing doesn’t deter from the story. Like a reference you don’t have to get.

  2. This book is actually not that cynical.

    Ishmael says that while man are enacting a story that is destroying the world now, it’s not because of any intrinsic fault of man; if we had a story to enact that was in accord with the world, we’d live in accord with the world. With this, he expresses hope that we can learn from our mistakes and save ourselves as well as the world. Our mother didn’t have that kind of optimism đŸ˜‰

  3. Just chiming in to agree that this book is not cynical. In fact, the real hope lies in the concrete fact that man is capable of enacting a different story. There is a subtle and often overlooked point that Quinn makes. Indeed, man did enact a different story, which gave him life to begin with. We are not humanity, but only one culture. Actually, the old story has continued to this day in remote areas of the world. The outcome of the present situation is of course in doubt, but the hope does lie in the recognition that there is another story to be in. Man belongs to the world.

    • This is true, but by the end of the book it seemed to me that both the narrator and Ishmael were unsure how to get Man back to enacting the other story. Ishmael just tells the narrator to continue teaching his lesson, but admits that of course this isn’t enough. I was left with the feeling that even if the narrator reached as many people as he could, it’s still a pretty ineffectual way to spread the word. So I agree that you’re right, and the book isn’t entirely as cynical as I make it sound, but it is dismaying.

      • Certainly the book is dismaying. The message to be understood and disseminated is that man belongs to the world and cannot otherwise live. I mean certainly it is dismaying! To my mind it was like finding out about something on the order of Copernicus’s discovery – it’s unfortunately irrefutable… unfortunately because, if true, how inconvenient! But how much more inconvenient is this news! The life of man didn’t depend on recognizing the planet’s location in the cosmos, but it does on recognizing his membership in the community of life.

        The necessity of changing minds to changing our behavior is more fully explored in the direct sequel to Ishmael, “The Story of B”, which I heartily recommend.

  4. *is gonna stay out of the debate due to brain malfunction*

  5. I was just listening to a podcast about Orwell’s 1984, and that book was accused of the same thing, not being cynical (which I think is the wrong word for Ishmael), but simply provoking hopelessness or despair. The person commenting (Christopher Hitchens) said he didn’t think it was the case, that, yes, in so expertly writing Winston Smith’s hopelessness, Orwell offers the first piece of avoiding that hopelessness for ourselves. In other words, might not be able to solve every problem that we frame, but every problem we solve MUST be framed.

  6. […] is the final book I read today- The Man Who Grew Young, by Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael), is about a universe where time progresses in reverse, the idea being that once the universe […]

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