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Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit Paperback – May 1, 1995

4.3 out of 5 stars 1,528 customer reviews
Book 1 of 3 in the Ishmael Series

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Quinn ( Dreamer ) won the Turner Tomorrow Award's half-million-dollar first prize for this fascinating and odd book--not a novel by any conventional definition--which was written 13 years ago but could not find a publisher. The unnamed narrator is a disillusioned modern writer who answers a personal ad ("Teacher seeks pupil. . . . Apply in person.") and thereby meets a wise, learned gorilla named Ishmael that can communicate telepathically. The bulk of the book consists entirely of philosophical dialogues between gorilla and man, on the model of Plato's Republic. Through Ishmael, Quinn offers a wide-ranging if highly general examination of the history of our civilization, illuminating the assumptions and philosophies at the heart of many global problems. Despite some gross oversimplifications, Quinn's ideas are fairly convincing; it's hard not to agree that unrestrained population growth and an obsession with conquest and control of the environment are among the key issues of our times. Quinn also traces these problems back to the agricultural revolution and offers a provocative rereading of the biblical stories of Genesis. Though hardly any plot to speak of lies behind this long dialogue, Quinn's smooth style and his intriguing proposals should hold the attention of readers interested in the daunting dilemmas that beset our planet. 50,000 first printing; major ad/promo.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, a literary competition intended to foster works of fiction that present positive solutions to global problems, this book offers proof that good ideas do not necessarily equal good literature. Ishmael, a gorilla rescued from a traveling show who has learned to reason and communicate, uses these skills to educate himself in human history and culture. Through a series of philosophical conversations with the unnamed narrator, a disillusioned Sixties idealist, Ishmael lays out a theory of what has gone wrong with human civilization and how to correct it, a theory based on the tenet that humanity belongs to the planet rather than vice versa. While the message is an important one, Quinn rarely goes beyond a didactic exposition of his argument, never quite succeeding in transforming idea into art. Despite this, heavy publicity should create demand. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/91.
- Lawrence Rungren, Bedford Free P.L., Mass.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 263 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reissue edition (May 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553375407
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553375404
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,528 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,086 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've read several reviews of this book and found that, despite Quinn's careful attempts to get his message across clearly and unequivocally, many readers misunderstand the finer points of Ishmael's arguments and end up praising or condemning Ishmael for the wrong reasons. Here is a short list of common misunderstandings you're likely to encounter in the course of reading reviews of this book:

(1) The central message is a hackneyed statement about saving the planet: All we have to do is this or that. We need to treat the earth better, or treat each other better, etc....

No, the author has no such message. He is not even concerned with saving the planet. He merely points out that, in the past, there were many ways a human could make a living in the world that did not threaten to render the planet uninhabitable. As George Carlin once said: "The planet isn't going anywhere. We are!" The author recommends that if we are concerned about our future, then we should find out as much as we can about these other ways of living in the world and what made them sustainable.

(2) This is communism.

No, this is tribalism, the cultural traits of which have been found to be conducive to sutainable ways of living.

So-called communist countries operate the same unsustainable lifestyle as so-called democratic countries and are just as hierarchical and corrupt. Nothing new, except the academic devaluation of the individual. In "democratic" countries, the devaluation is not openly professed, only practiced and theoretically implied. Progress means the same thing in both societies: the technological displacement of people.

(3) The ape is omniscient; skeptics beware.

Skeptics always beware. Ishmael is the ultimate skeptic.
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Some quotes that have caused me pause:

"The earth is on the brink of environmental collapse because the evil white people have forgotten that the world does not belong to them."

"Its central tenet - that human beings, through their total disregard for the world around them, are destroying the Earth"

Way to miss the boat.

First of all, in no way is Quinn saying humans are a disease, that white people in particular are a disease, or that "Western Civ." is responsible. Quinn is saying that for millions of years humans existed on this planet without conquering it, and that that they did so sustainably. It is not "human beings" that are responsible, it is the "produce or die" culture that's responsible.

Jean Jacques Rousseau posited that the greatest crime in the history of humanity was when one person fenced off an area and said "this is mine." The rest is, unfortunately, history. It is not that we're human, it is how we are living. We are under the delusion that there is no other way to live - but we have 3 million years of shared "non-history" to point to to show that before our culture, humans lived just fine, thank you. Since our culture's inception, we have been on the track to disaster - War, Famine, Slavery, Plague - all fruits of this cultural tree. And with no one even considering the possibility of changing course (and frankly, why would they when the rewards are "comfort" and "wealth"), there is nothing but a great brick wall at the end of this tunnel to look forward to.

This book is not meant to do anything more than wake us up from the mind-numbing hum of the culture that tells us there is no other way to live.
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Format: Paperback
It is a general rule that any particular culture can only be understood by someone outside of it - a neutral observer, unaffected by prejudice or indoctrination. This is the reasoning behind Quinn's choice of a gorilla named Ishmael as the main character of this novel, who conducts a series of dialogues analyzing the whole of civilization itself.
But what is the civilization that Quinn looks at? Instead of muttering about monumental building and written language, Quinn treats civilization in a method that is becoming increasingly popular: as the result of a critical mass of humanity that makes possible rapid advances in knowledge and science. For this to be possible, intensive agriculture must be used to raise the population density to such a point that civilization occurs.
So Quinn uses a gorilla as an outsider looking in and perceiving the reality of civilization - of cultures using intensive agriculture to dominate the world. His conclusions are for the most part negative: he concludes that civilization is not sustainable in the long term (that is, over millions of years).
The observations used to come to this conclusion are relatively well-known; that civilization is the greatest disaster to befall earth in the past 65 million years. In terms of pollution, deforestation, extinction, and overall negative impact to the web of life itself, humanity is supreme among all the species. What Quinn does not share with the others who know these facts is a belief that civilization will overcome any difficulties it encounters. Civilization, to Quinn, is the problem, not the solution.
_Ishmael_ is the presentation of these ideas in a Socratic method from a gorilla to a man "with an earnest desire to save the world.
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