Book Review: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

I read this book and fell so in love with Daniel Quinn. I don’t know how I managed to go through life for so long without having read it, except that everyone always talks about it as something to read before Derrick Jensen, and I thought, why read what leads up to what I’ve already read?

Besides being an excellent knower and understander, Daniel Quinn is a great writer. The book grabs you right away: there is an ad in the paper, “teacher seeks pupil, must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” The narrator, who doesn’t seem to have or need a name, has all the teacher-needing hang ups that are so common these days. I’ve had them too.

So he goes to the address, and the teacher is a Gorrilla and a teacher in the Socratic tradition, Ishmael. Ishmael’s life parallel’s all of ours, the always-repeating story of captivity and domesticity. Being, however, a gorilla with limited enculturation and unlimited library access, Ishmael has some amazing perspective.

He effectively summarizes years worth of sociology classes into one impactful chapter, and then he re-frames history. He tells us what we already know, and he tells us what we’ve never thought of. And all this dialogue? It’s interesting, fast paced, never boring. He also makes nice, subtle, use of neurolinguistic programming. I especially appreciate it when authors do this in good ways, and I’ve found it to be fairly consistently associated with good messages.

After working through history and culture and basic rules of logic and capitalism and the function of schools, Ishmael goes someplace entirely new. He and the narrator examine the whole community of life and tease out one set of survival strategies that are evolutionarily stable for every species.

You really have to read this book.


  1. Wow! I’ve been reading Ishmael, and am almost done with it! The only reason I haven’t finished it yet is because I don’t want it to end!

    You are absolutely right, everyone should read this.

  2. Another NLP’er, eh? Good stuff.

    People have been recommending this to me for years, guess I’ll have to read it now.

  3. Eh. I’m glad you had this reaction. I was given this book years ago when I decided to go into teaching, and I read it…and I was not at all bedazzled. And believe you me; I am not lacking in the ability to suspend disbelief; but I found myself trying too hard to do so with this book. And yes…the philosophical points about humanity…still a human writing about humanity, not a gorilla.

    I’m just saying. I considered this as a text for IB seniors (high school), and decided that their general worldview constructs were too sophisticated for this book.

  4. After 24 hours consideration, I can’t help feeling that what I wrote was too harsh?

    Far be it from me to poopoo another’s enjoyment.

    I do feel kinda bad. I suppose I’m jealous you got from the book what I hoped to…but just couldn’t get there.

    Blergh. In any event…I’ve heard EXCELLENT things about the work from Starhawk you’ve recommended here, and I do plan on ordering it through the cookie on this blog.

    Apologies for being a negative Nelly.


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