Book Review: My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

My Ishmael is even better than Ishmael.

The narrator is a twelve year old girl. She’s a stereotype, really: the only latchkey child of a single alcoholic workaholic mother. Daniel Quinn doesn’t bother to introduce her further, except to throw in a couple more cliches. I was pretty pissed about this, because his male characters get to be people, but this girl character has to be some two dimensional cliché? Fuck that shit. I forgave him, partially, because he went on to solve all the angst I was having.

She answers the same ad as the first guy: “teacher seeks pupil. Must have a sincere desire to save the world.” At first, Ishmael tries to send her away. She’s too young. She tells him she’s old enough to get pregnant and do heroin, and, being a Gorilla quite inexperienced with pre-teen dramatics, Ishmael decides to teach her.

What does she need to learn, he asks. She tells him she had a vision that she would come here and be sent off to study people on other planets who knew how to live without killing their worlds. This is how Ishmael frames her teachings. He takes her to imaginary planets and tells her about how people live successfully there, and then he points out indigenous cultures and animal species that live exactly the same way.

I had been wondering about people. I had been wondering why we put up with so much crazy shit from each other, why we dive so gloriously into such small, socially constructed realities. I wondered why the friendships I made as a kid on the street were so real and intense, and why normal people always seem so superficial. I had an idea that we were meant to live in tribes, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. This book made it clear.

Ishmael contrasted things like learning in civilization and indigenous cultures: civilized kids hate school and have to be prodded to learn anything by the third grade, indigenous kids learn the history of their people, all their technology, and how to live in the world just as easily and naturally as civilized kids learn to tie shoes or ride a bike. Skills and knowledge, for these kids, have relevance and they learn them directly, not sitting at desks with a hundred other kids considering hypotheticals on paper.

In tribes, Ishmael tells us, people take care of each other and are taken care of. They will all worry together about finding enough meat and how cold the winter will be, but they will never worry, as individuals, about finding a place to live, getting a job, paying rent, having a career, saving money to live when they retire, paying for nursing homes, or paying for food. Can you imagine living without all that stress? People did for thousands and thousands of years. We have only lived this way for a few hundred.


  1. I actually read My Ishmael before I read Ishmael (it was just available to me first). I liked My Ishmael soo much better because it felt like the guy in Ishmael was just being so frustratingly dense.

  2. I got this for Christmas, and haven’t picked it up yet! Now I’ll have to. Ishmael was great, but I needed a push to read the sequal! Thanks!

  3. I greatly enjoy reading your posts, detailing your adventures. You certainly inspire me to break free of slave wagery as well! If you need a driveway to park in passing thru Calgary, Alberta, feel free to drop me a line. I have a corner of the backyard obscured from all neighbors. The dogs enjoy peeing there as well!

    Please keep up the mind expanding work!

  4. So mnau books, so little time. And many of the ones you recommend are not in my university’s library (odd). ::sigh::

  5. I greatly resent any book that dictates how humanity is supposed to live. We were successful initially because we banded together in groups. The reason a tribe works is because the survival of the individual is aided by the survival of the whole. We often elevate an indigenous culture because it makes us feel… better. Enlightened. A small community makes it easy to scapegoat (why support a strange person if it isn’t going to benefit you or your offspring?). The reason the “indigenous” kids are happy is because they live on a knife’s edge. You help out and you are a member of your tribe, they need you. It’s dangerous though, if you don’t like your given traditional role what do you do? What can you do? Relying on a natural landscape is dangerous because your very habitat can kill you or another more violent tribe can.
    There is no perfect society because humans are not perfect. We’re adaptable and we’re smart but not smart enough to stop overfishing, farming inappropriate stock on untenable land or resorting to folk cures because they are traditional. Sometimes people like to write about an ideal world and say, “live as I tell you and all will be better.” It won’t be though, you can’t have modern medicine without petrol, you have to give up something to live by an ideal. Even then, an ideal is merely a simplified solution to a problem. It may work for a few years, it may work for decades but eventually we start repeating our mistakes all over again. You need to dream but there’s no point saying there are easy answers.

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