I finished Ishmael today. Loved it. Ishmael begins with a wanted ad:
TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person. (p. 4)
Thus begins a new friendship and a philosophical conversation that lasts the length of the book. A conversation about what? Well, about saving the world. Not about saving America, saving the West, or saving the human race but saving the entire world. Is that something you care about?
The teacher begins by asking his pupil to examine “civilized” people’s mythology, the story we believe and enact. This isn’t Christian mythology or Hindu mythology but what unites practically all civilized people. The pupil starts explaining how the earth began, how single-celled creatures formed, how they evolved, and how humans were the end result. Can you spot where the facts shift to myth? Evolution doesn’t just stop, and therefore there is no pinnacle. If you want to see how this realization leads to world salvation, you’ll have to check out or borrowIshmael.
I did think the book was a little patronizing in its pace and simplicity. I can only imagine that Quinn (the author) was trying his best to make his ideas as accessible as possible. There are also many parts where the teacher says something like, “You’re not thinking about the question,” and the pupil will say, “But I don’t know the answer.” These get a bit tiresome, but I think Quinn is trying to shake his readers out of passive consumption and get them to think about the answers on their own. That may be overly charitable, but I really like this book and choose to think the best of Daniel Quinn, who, by the way, was born in Omaha, NE.
Part of me wants to recommend this book to everyone, but I know not everyone will be able to accept what it says. If you think evolution is just a suggestion some scientists put forth to explain life, you’ll be pretty frustrated reading Ishmael. For you, I would suggest reading a bit about what a scientific theory is and understanding how it differs from a plausible guess. Approaching this book with an open mind is also a good idea.
Also, Ishmael was published in 1992, not the ’70s like the cover art seems to suggest.