Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

I just read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. And I whole heartily agree with the quotation on the front cover:

From now on I will divide the books I have read into two categories – the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after.

It is very insightful and makes you feel like it’s plan could really do wonders for the world. There’s an Online Community for the book too.

Here are some favourite quotes.

This about finding in the newspaper an ad for a student, when the reader has been in search of an earnest teacher for so long…

But this still doesn’t explain my outrage, does it?

Try this: You’ve been in love with someone for a decade-someone who barely knows you’re alive. You’ve done everything, tried everything to make this person see that you’re a valuable, estimable person, and that your love is worth something. Then one day you open up the paper and glance at the Personals column, and there you see that your loved one has place an ad… seeking someone worthwhile to love and be loved by… [pg. 6]

Ishmael, a gorilla, is talking about the difference between life at the zoo, and life in Africa.

By contrast, this life was agonizingly boring and never pleasant. Thus in asking why, I was trying to puzzle out why life should be divided in this way, half of it interesting and pleasant and half of it boring and unpleasant. I had no concept of myself as a captive; it didn’t occur to me that anyone was preventing me from having an interesting and pleasant life. When no answer to my question was forthcoming, I began to consider the differences between the two life-styles. The most fundamental difference was that in Africa I was a member of a family-of a sort of family that the people of your culture haven’t known for thousands of years. If gorillas were capable of such an expression, they would tell you that their family is like a hand, of which they are the fingers. They are fully aware of being a family but are very little aware of being individuals. Here in the zoo there were other gorillas-but there was no family. Five severed fingers do not make a hand.

I considered the matter of feeding. Human children dream of a land where the mountains are ice cream and the trees are gingerbread and the stones are bonbons. For a gorilla, Africa is such a land. Wherever one turns, there is something wonderful to eat. One never thinks, “Oh, I’d better look for some food.” Food is everywhere, and one picks it up almost absentmindedly, as one takes a breath of air. In fact, one does not think of feeding as a distinct activity at all. [pg. 12]

In a discussion about the destiny of man there was this quote,

In order to become fully human, man had to pull himself out of the slime. And all this is the result. As the Takers [aka, The Civilized] see it, the gods gave man the same choice they gave Achilles: a brief life of glory or a long, uneventful life in obscurity. And the Takes chose a brief life of glory. [pg. 75]

An interesting misconception in the old account of history,

When the people of your culture encountered the hunter-gatherers of Africa and America, it was thought that these were people who had degenerated from the natural, agricultural state, people who had lost the arts they’d been born with. The Takes had no idea that they were looking at what they themselves had been before they became agriculturalists. As far as the Takers knew, there was no ‘before.’ Creation had occurred just a few thousand years ago, and Man the Agriculturalist had immediately set about the task of building civilization. [pg. 201]

And how history relates to the present in the two different cultures of the Takers and the Leavers (the primitives)…

“Yes, I see. It’s coming together for me now. I was saying that among the Leavers you always have the sense of a people with a past extending back to the dawn of time. Among the Takers you have the sense of a people with a past extending back to 1963.”

Ishmael nodded, but then went on: “At the same time, it should be noted that ancientness is a great validator among the people of your culture-so long as it’s restricted to that function. For example, the English want all their institutions-and all the pageantry surrounding those 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.” [pg. 202]

Ishmael educates the reader of the not-so-grimness of the lives of the Leavers.

Hunter-gatherers no more live on the knife-edge of survival than wolves or lions or sparrows or rabbits. Man was as well adapted to life on this planet as any other species, and the idea that he lived on the knife-edge of survival is simply biological nonsense. As an omnivore, his dietary range is immense. Thousands of species will go hungry before he does. His intelligence and dexterity enable him to live comfortably in conditions that would utterly defeat any other primate.

Far from scrabbling endlessly and desperately for food, hunter-gatherers are among the best-fed people on earth, and they manage this with only two or three hours a day of what you would call work-which makes the among the most leisured people on earth as well. In his book on stone age economics, Marshall Sahlins described them as ‘the original affluent society.’ And incidentally, predation of man is practically nonexistent. He’s simply not the first choice on any predator’s menu. [pg. 220]

Ishmael advises the reader with a plan on how to make the future a wonderful place,

As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ides and leave a void behind: you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost-something that makes better sense then the old horror of Man supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t server his needs directly or indirectly. [pg. 249]

That thing that is to replace the destructive man is the man that is the role model to all future species that have a choice. A choice between living with or against the world. To show that you can survive if you are allowed a chance, because you will learn what the right choice is and the world with be a better place for your decision.

Ishmael says that he learned that culture was like a giant prison from an ex-convict who he once talked to.

Primarily what I learned from him is that, contrary to the impression one receives from prison movies, the prison population is not at all an undifferentiated mass. As in the outside world, there are the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. And relatively speaking, the rich and the powerful live very well inside the prison-not as well as they do on the outside, of course, but much, much better than the poor and the weak. In fact they can have very nearly anything they want, in terms of drugs, food, sex, and service.


You want to know what this has to do with anything, [...] It has this to do with anything: The world of the Takers is one vast prison, and except for a handful of Leavers scattered across the world, the entire human race is now inside that prison. During the last century every remaining Leave people in North America was given a chance: to be exterminated or to accept imprisonment. Many chose imprisonment, but not many were actually capable of adjust to prison life. [pg. 251]

It’s a very mind opening book.