Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
January 2012
Ishmael title

This is the second in a two-part series about my favourite books from the last two years. Blankets by Craig Thompson is the other post in the series.

These are not books which were written in 2010 and 2011. Rather, they are books which I discovered in those years.

Daniel Quinn Ishmael book cover

Favourite book of 2011: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (released 1992)

Although I have read books on environmentalism for many years, I was still blown away when reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael for the first time in 2011.

With Ishmael, Daniel Quinn shares the fruit of his quest to understand why our civilisation acts the way it does. Why does our civilisation act toward other cultures in the way we do? Why do we act toward nature in the way we do? Is it human nature that makes us behave in this way, or something else?

Writing style

Ishmael is a book which impressed me both because of its actual message, as well as the way in which the author reveals his ideas to the reader. Most books on sustainability present ideas in a straight-forward, non-fiction way. The arguments may be supported and heightened with poetic prose (e.g. Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle and Biomimicry), but they are quite direct and structured in making their arguments.

Quinn takes a different approach with Ishmael. The book is presented in a quasi-fictional setting, with almost the entire book consisting of a dialogue between a teacher and a student. Instead of presenting the ‘answer’ to the student right away, the teacher helps the student deconstruct his existing worldview. Once this is complete, an alternative perspective is constructed throughout the course of their conversations.

Involving the reader

By writing the book in this way, Quinn gives the reader a heightened sense of involvement. The reader is invested in the character of the student, and therefore also invested in learning from the teacher. On one hand, this is both frustrating when the answers don’t come easily. But at the same time, it makes for a page-turning book because of the way the answers are pieced together through their discussion. Because of the gradual way things are revealed, information which may have seemed ho-hum in a regular textbook seem almost revelatory in Ishmael.

Ishmael (and the Daniel Quinn books that followed it, such as The Story of B, and Beyond Civilization) have their critics. But to my mind, they are mostly from people who bring their own hangups and preconceived ideas into the free-thinking territory which Daniel Quinn operates. Even if the answers which Quinn presents may not be satisfactory to everyone, he is certainly asking very interesting questions.

Personal responses

Ishmael helped me piece together personal observations which had previously been held separate in my mind. It also presented new, unique ways of looking at humanity and the environment. One small response to the book can be found in my Purpose comic. Finally, Quinn’s storytelling technique gave me ideas into new ways which complex ideas can be explained to others.

Of everything I read last year, this was my favourite. If you like my comics, I am sure you will enjoy this book. Buy Ishmael new / used (aff).