• SumoMe

Imagine you’re reading the newspaper and you find an advertisement that reads: “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” Would you go? This scenario is the exact premise of Daniel Quinn’s 1992 book entitled “Ishmael.” The entire work is narrated by an unnamed character who finds that the person who wrote the advertisement is not a person at all, but a massive gorilla who can communicate with him telepathically by staring into the narrator’s eyes.

Over time, the man continues to return to the gorilla (named Ishmael) who in turn continues to teach him an alternative way of looking at the world around him–the point of view of a gorilla. Ishmael’s teachings involve lessons on history, culture, and philosophy, which are conveyed through various series of questions and answers in a Socratic-type method of teaching. The narrator and Ishmael become very close, and their bond takes many forms. Up until the end of the work, Quinn keeps the reader’s attention through a vast and thorough array of knowledge on many subjects.

This novel is not so much plot-driven, as much of the book is a man staring at a gorilla. However, where the book gains its power is through the thought-provoking theories and statements, like the following:

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.

The point is to give the reader a new story that will allow them to act in accord with the world, rather than against it. The only way to fully grasp the new story is to read the book and go through their conversations, but it all comes down to Ishmael’s law of limited competition. In a nutshell, you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war. All species inevitably follow this law, or as a consequence go extinct. Civilizations believe themselves to be exempt from this Law and flout it at every point.

The two decade old book is still strikingly relevant in the modern age, if not more so. I strongly encourage everyone to read this work, as it is truly a masterpiece and one that will live on with you well past the last page. If you enjoy philosophy, thoughtful narrative fiction, or unusual storytelling, this is a book for you.

Have you read “Ishmael?” What are your thoughts or opinions? It all goes in the comments (please, no spoilers).