Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael was recommended to me by Little Miss Twig long before she was Miss Twig. It caused what you might call a sea change in my world view and got me to resolve to do whatever I could to “save the world” from itself. This in my opinion is not great literature, but the ideas Quinn expresses so cleverly are revolutionary and for me essential to understanding why humanity has come to the point of being in danger of destroying everything of value – not to mention our very existence – and how our misinterpretation of our purpose on Earth has been spread to all corners of the planet.
The only thing in the book I found that requires a suspension of dis-belief is that a gorilla can carry on a conversation with a human. Even this literary device is qualified when Ishmael (the gorilla) explains – with astonishment at the ignorance of his student – why his words are not heard out loud but only as thoughts in the mind of the listener.
What I find so compelling about the book is that Quinn succeeds in showing us that what we have always assumed to be true might possibly be anything but. Furthermore he shows that what we do – including the havoc we create – is driven by what we believe, but more importantly, by those beliefs we hold are completely unaware of. Finally, Quinn presents us with a rather compelling – and shocking – theory of the source of the story of the Garden of Eden, and how our error about this has led us to completely misunderstand our role in nature. Whether his ideas about this are historically accurate or not to me is irrelevant. There is a great freedom which comes about when examines one’s beliefs and questions their validity. If, for example, I become aware that I believe I am worthless, will never amount to anything, I can begin to ask “who told me that? Was it a parent? a teacher? one of those bullies in school?” and I can free myself of a serious limitation.
This book is to be read as a meditation. It is not necessary to decide whether Quinn is correct – it is only necessary to become Ishmael’s student for a time, to look into oneself and discover what misconceptions, and what wisdom may be lurking there.