Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn (1992)

Ishmael was another book purchased at the Printer's Row Lit Fest this year, along with How to be Alone--but it was not purchased by me.  My friend (who previously reviewed Anna Karenina) picked it up, recalling that it was the best book that had been assigned for reading in middle school.  I told him that if I had to read Ishmael, he would need to read Our Band Could Be Your Life.  I kept up my end up the bargain; he did not.

My feelings on Ishmael are not that conflicted.  I found it difficult to slog through the end.  It is not a hard read, but I found it repetitive and "padded."  It seemed to me that Quinn knew what he wanted to say--and the real value of the book is that he certainly does have something to say--but that he did not need a 263 page novel to say it.  To me, this books seems like it could be "The Grand Inquisitor," which was a 20 page excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov that was assigned to me in a college course, and sold in the bookstore for about $1.99.  "The Grand Inquisitor" is definitely worth a read--and if Ishmael was condensed down into a 20 page excerpt it might be as well.  But I did not become actively engaged in this novel until the last 50 pages or so, and while those 50 pages may be a reasonably compelling portion of the text, I was more exasperated than enthralled by the majority of it.

Ishmael is not your typical book.  It reminded me of Plato's Socratic dialogues.  However, unlike those, it is not always easy to tell who is speaking.  Moreover, Socrates always advances along with his student along a minutely logical plane.  Sometimes, this dialogue just leaps across logical barriers, and says "things are so because of this, and that's just the way it is." I don't necessarily disagree with the wisdom of this book--just the way it arrives there.  And if it's not already clear to you, Ishmael does not have much of a plot.  The point of the book is to lecture the reader.  The plot is secondary, but I must admit that the when the "plot" of the book took over near the end, I was most interested.  Regardless of this form, Ishmael is a very popular book.  I have seen people reading it on the El, and its cover was oddly familiar to me before I saw my friend pick it up.  I was worried it was going to be like The Celestine Prophecy--thankfully, it was better.  I would say the two books are similarly popular as "new age" mainstream philosophical dispatches on how to live a better life.  Many people read them, and recommend them to their friends.  Ishmael is better and does not concern itself with the "energy" we project onto others.  It presents a different way of looking at the world.  When I asked my friend what it was about, he replied that it was about how humans are just insignificant little playthings for God, or something.  That was not the best description so here is mine:

It is about a middle-aged man who answers an ad from a person seeking a student.  The ad is very brusque and new age-y: "TEACHER seeks pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person."  (4) He shows up to an office and a gorilla is sitting there.  Then, the gorilla communicates with him telepathically and engages him in prolonged dialogues on a different interpretation of human history.

It sounds absurd, and Quinn mostly knows this, and it does make for a few good comic moments.  I do not really have a problem with the plot; my problem, as stated above, is that the book treads over the same territory repeatedly, and does not seem to advance.  Eventually, Ishmael (who is the gorilla) retells the story of Genesis, and this seems like the turning point in the book.  Up until this point there is much conversation about the agricultural revolution and how human beings changed from being hunter-gatherers to stockpiling up their food supply, and the resulting issue of overpopulation.  This is pretty much the main topic of Ishmael and as noted, I agree with its message: we all waste too much, and there is no reason that millions of people across the planet struggle to get enough to eat--it is all a result of corrupt human institutions.  The point where I disagree is when it conveniently dismisses any attempts that "advanced" human beings have made to restore nature to its rightful place.  The book was published in 1992, and its message is no less important today, but I do believe that people are generally more environmentally-conscious than in the past.  Having said that, plenty of people still don't believe in global warming.  Also, a side note: this book would probably be longer if written ten or fifteen years later and devote a fair portion of text to how the internet has, contrary to its lofty ambitions, effectively shrunk the worldview of its users:

"Mother Culture teaches you that this is as it should be.  Except for a few thousand savages scattered here and there, all the peoples of the earth are now enacting this story.  This is the story man was born to enact, and to depart from it is to resign from the human race itself, is to venture into oblivion.  Your place is here, participating in this story, putting your shoulder to the wheel, and as a reward, being fed.  There is no "something else." To step out of this story is to fall off the edge of the world.  There's no way out of it except through death." (37)

Basically the world is divided up into Takers and Leavers.  Takers are essentially colonists, and Leavers are essentially tribal people.  Ishmael would probably have been a better book if it had been a more scholarly, anthropological work of non-fiction.  However, its message would not come through nearly as clearly.  I do think the best parts of the text are the brief snippets that discuss certain obscure moments of ancient human history.  There was one great passage that mentioned a certain tribe of natives in Arizona, and their name was only familiar because the stadium where the Chicago Cubs used to play their spring training games in Mesa, AZ (until this year) was named for them:

"And if they got tired of being agriculturalists, if they found they didn't like where it was leading them in their particular adaptation, they were able to give it up.  They didn't say to themselves, 'Well, we've got to keep going at this even if it kills us, because this is the right way to live.'  For example, there was once a people who constructed a vast network of irrigation canals in order to farm the deserts of what is now southeastern Arizona.  They maintained these canals for three thousand years and built a fairly advanced civilization, but in the end they were free to say, 'This is a toilsome and unsatisfying way to live, so to hell with it.'  They simply walked away from the whole thing and put it so totally out of mind that we don't even know what they called themselves.  The only name we have for them is the one the Pima Indians gave them: Hohokam--those who vanished." (168)

Ultimately, Ishmael arrives at its greatest and most powerful claim--that industrialization has prevented human beings from evolving into anything more than homo sapiens--and I have a hard time accepting it, for the evolutionary process takes much longer than humans have been making and recording "history."  It is an interesting thought, but like most of the book, while wisdom is being liberally offered, deeper and greater details about the factual claims are left out in the favor of "readability" or "entertainment."  When I did not find it all that entertaining (the ending being the exception), then it is a problem for me to recommend it.

But this book is still very popular and has apparently achieved "near classic" status--I haven't read any reviews, but I would presume it is more popular with readers than critics.  So I won't try to talk anyone out of reading this book.  I just hope they will know what to expect.

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