Thursday, February 14, 2013


By Daniel Quinn

OK, look. Before I even begin to tell you why this book sucks, I'm going to flat out tell you: Read this book at your first possible convenience. Read that first sentence again if you have to. I didn't make any grammar mistakes. It reads as it should. I know, that doesn't make sense, but bear with me, I'll explain.

If someone were to ask me to summarize Ishmael, the pseudo-philosophical 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn in one sentence I would say:

Sanctimonious gorilla teaches dim-witted man why humanity is doomed.

"Could you expand on that a little?" you might ask.

"Sure," I'd respond. "Ishmael is the name of a telepathic and hyper-intelligent (for a non-homonoid primate) gorilla. His name is apt because he represents the natural world which is like Ishmael, Abraham's first son, in the Old Testament. See, he's named Ishmael because Ishmael lost his birthright and nature also.... oh never mind, you get it.

Anyway, Ishmael is a condescending ape who teaches this really fat-headed man (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) via metaphor, myth and parable about the way in which humanity is hurtling itself off a proverbial cliff and seems to be mistaking the sensation of falling for the sensation of flying (see, metaphor. I can't escape the style even in review). The nameless man takes so long to understand the simple reasoning of the gorilla that this 75 page book concludes about 200 pages later than it should. Seriously, this novel should be called Asshole Gorilla Talks to an Idiot.

Ishmael is not a good book. Not even remotely. It is didactic pablum at its worst (OK, not at its worst... I did read The Shack, but it's still pretty bad). It at times skirts dangerously close to the realm of new age tribalism (think The Alchemist) and really bad science fiction (think L. Ron Hubbard). The writing is at time almost unbearable and, as I mentioned before, it takes 260 pages (and two sequels, apparently) to get to the crux of Ishmael's argument. Furthermore, its love affair with primitivism is nothing short of hypocrisy and its dismissal of the "noble savage" archetype is irresponsible. Its neo-hippy tone is more than a little irritating and it supposes that prehistoric people were psychic vegetarians living in harmony with nature (as if). Lastly its quasi-religious and pseudo-scientific babble seems to be lifted right out of a Paulo Coelho book. Strike three, four, five, six......

That being said, Ishmael is not without its merits, specifically on the subject of mythology.

Ishmael is not so much a novel but a Socratic dialogue on the nature and history human supremacy on Earth, the way that supremacy is woven into the fabric of our ancient and modern mythologies and how we are all doomed if we do not soon alter our worldview. In fact, despite its multitude of deficiencies Ishmael is the sort of book that I would recommend everyone read. And when I say everyone, I don't mean everyone who likes new age books or everyone who is interested in anthropology or everyone interested in the social behavior of gorillas but everyone, without caveat. 

You might think it strange that I am universally recommending a book I ultimately detested. True, it's a bit of a stretch. But for all its shortcomings, Ishmael raises a lot of interesting topics for debate concerning the nature of man, the implications of the agricultural revolution and the notion of sustainable development. Unlike so many better books about the ecological and environmental degradation of the Earth, Quinn offers up very real and very plausible historical, mythological and anthropological reasonings for our destructive behavior. By dividing our culture into two defining categories (Takers and Leavers) he is able to define the exact moment in history in which we started down the path of global annihilation. I'm not saying he's right, but it's a pretty interesting guess, and one that deserves attention.

Of particular note in this novel is the deconstruction of the creation myth as found in Genesis and the way in which it chronicles the literal history of mankind in a way that was both shocking and decidedly obvious at the same time. I found myself harkening back to my university lectures on mythology and wondered what Joseph Campbell would have to say about Quinn's assertions about the mythological reasonings for Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel and how their story is metaphorically intertwined into the fabric of human history.

As I said, there are better books, both in the genre of fiction and non-fiction, that deal with the issues discussed in Ishmael, but none have presented the material in such a way as to show how deep the idea of destruction is imbedded into our very culture via mythology and history. For no other reason, I would recommend everyone read this novel. It deserves conversation.

What are some other bad books that really deserve to be read?


Jenny said...

I've read books that I find truly awful and yet I recommend them to people. Atonement being one. Funny that we do this. I guess sometimes it's good to hate a book???

Teacher Scott said...

The Celestine Prophecy is awful, but... no, on second thought, don't read it.

Brian Joseph said...

I kind of see your point about the book having interesting and important ideas. However, since I tend to agree that the things that you criticized in this book are drawbacks, I think that I might get too annoyed to get through this. Especially in light of the fact that there are so many great philosophical, anthropological, ecological, "Big Picture" of humanity books out there.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Interesting. Odd. I like that. Nevertheless, I'll go with my first thoughts; I know I will never, ever read this book.

Amber said...

Okay, so I'm a little late..but I opted out of reading this book for an anthropology class in college...can't say that I'll reconsider.

Also, I couldn't think of a book that was bad but should be read...until now--The Bluest Eye. I don't see how anyone can actually 'like' it, but it deserves to be read.

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