Bernie Gourley's Reviews > Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
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bookshelves: wisdom

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 "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.)

"Leavers" live similarly to the way humans did 50,000 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 in super-tribal society.]Leavers live like animals in that they exist in 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 thought process. 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 the reader how much he or she takes for granted. We can't see forests for trees.

One may agree or disagree with the author, but one will nevertheless be subjected to some 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 gets a bit repetitive. The latter serves to reinforce key concepts, but some of them are reinforced inordinately. In attempting to make the narrating protagonist struggle, Quinn creates a lead who seems a bit dense sometimes.

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