Book Review: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (no spoilers!)

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” ~John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (pg 33)

For me, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn has always been one of those books. I was first assigned to read it in 11th grade during my AP Environmental Science class and it was probably the only assigned reading I actually completed that year. And I have read it at least 15 or 20 times since then (I do crazy things like that, you should see my copies of Harry Potter;))

A recent cover of the novel
A recent cover of the novel

The thing that I love about Ishmael is how it confronts life’s big problems and mysteries. Through the lessons that the narrator receives, the reader begins to understand some of the damage that the human race is causing. This includes not just environmental damage, but to fellow humans as well. The impact of so-called “Mother Culture” on our collective psyche begins to be revealed, as well as the effect that culture has on our views of the world around us and people that we perceive to be different from us.

Due to, let’s say, the unique perspective that the teacher in Ishmael has on the human race, he is able to broach topics that might otherwise be considered too controversial or sensitive. Perhaps the best example of this is the way that the teacher relates the story of Cain and Abel, an incredibly well known allegory even outside of religious contexts, to the apparent superiority of “civilized” societies over “primitive” ones.

Ishmael also discusses the creation of our “modern civilized” culture and what it cost to achieve this level of industrialization and sophistication. The book discusses what had to be destroyed to make way for new ideas. How human thinking about the environment has changed over time, and how some humans began to see themselves as rulers of the world.

Of course, Ishmael is not without flaws, and not everyone is going to agree with everything presented in the novel. However, if I had to choose one book to be required reading for the general public to understand the current “environmental crisis,” I would choose this one. While it does not focus specifically on environmental issues, just getting people to think about their way of living forces them to think about their environmental impacts. It is written in easily understandable language, and is presented in a way that the overall message of the novel slowly develops and can be digested at the reader’s own pace.

I could continue on and on with this review, pulling out some of the multitude of quotes I love from it and describing why I think they are important and wonderful. I could find countless reviews singing praises about Ishmael and its amazingness, but I won’t. Because that is not the goal of this review, and actually, not the goal of Ishmael. The lessons that are taught throughout the novel involve a journey of self-discovery, and so I am going to leave it to you to make your own journeys and discoveries. For they will surely differ from mine, though I hope you find this novel as inspirational as I have over the years.

One of the essential questions of Ishmael. Found on flickriver.
One of the essential questions of Ishmael. Found on flickriver.

 

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