If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways.by Daniel Quinn
In Ishmael, Daniel Quinn offered new ways of seeing and understanding human history, and our collective future. His message was transformative for millions of people, and Ishmael continues to attract tens of thousands of new readers each year. Subsequent works, such as The Story of B and My Ishmael, expanded upon his insights and teachings, but only now does he finally tackle the one question he has been asked hundreds of times but has never taken on: "How do you do what you do?" In If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways Quinn elucidates for readers the methods behind his own thought processes, challenging and ultimately empowering them to view the world for themselves in creative, perhaps even revolutionary ways. If They Give You Lines Paper, Write Sideways also includes Quinn's never-before-published essays "The New Renaissance" and "Our Religions." There is a scientific consensus that global warming is approaching a tipping point beyond no return faster than had previously been predicted. Quinn has long portrayed humans as "a species of beings, which, while supposedly rational, are destroying the very planet they live on." So what are we to do? There has never been a plan for the future - and there never will be. But something extraordinary will happen in the next two or three decades; the people of our culture will learn to live sustainably - or not. Either way, it will be extraordinary. The sooner we understand this reality, the greater the chances that human society will transform itself so that the human race might have a future.
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If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways
By Daniel Quinn
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2007 Daniel Quinn
All rights reserved.
Elaine [after an exchange of the usual civilities]. As you can imagine, I'm very curious to know about the book you're working on.
Daniel. It would be nearer the truth to describe it as a book I've been struggling with on and off for the past five years — at least. I'll try to explain ... When I finished Ishmael, I imagined that I'd done what I set out to do a dozen years before. I thought that this was it and that my work was done. A very naive notion.
Elaine. Why naive?
Daniel. Because no one with anything important to say has ever managed to encompass the whole of it in one book. What I learned from writing Ishmael was how far short I'd fallen. This is what the thousands of letters I received told me. Readers loved the book but came away from it with serious misunderstandings of what I was saying. I thought I could correct those misunderstandings with a second book, The Story of B. From the reaction to that book, I saw that a third was needed. That was My Ishmael: A Sequel. What I then saw was that a fourth was needed in order to knit all my ideas together in a very simple, straightforward way, and this was Beyond Civilization.
Daniel. When Beyond Civilization was still in manuscript form, I agreed to meet with a small group of readers who, like you, asked for an opportunity to get together with me to nail down their understanding of what I was saying. I agreed to give them a long weekend, but they had to arrive having read Beyond Civilization. When they arrived, however, it was soon clear that Beyond Civilization had answered very nearly all the questions they'd wanted to ask me. The "seminar" was over after about two hours, and we had to spend the rest of the weekend just socializing ... The point I'm making here is that, with this book, I largely answered the multitude of questions that readers had been asking me ever since Ishmael appeared.
Elaine. Yes, I can see that. Though I think your essay "The New Renaissance" was what really did it for me.
Daniel. Yes. For anyone seeking a concise expression of my basic message, "The New Renaissance" was it. I felt I'd said everything I had to say. But one question remained. This was a question that had been there from the beginning, but for many years I tended to dismiss it.
Elaine. What question was that?
Daniel. "How do you do what you do?"
Elaine. You say you tended to dismiss it ...?
Daniel. I dismissed it because I thought the answer was obvious: Anyone who'd worked at it as hard and as long as I had could have done the same.
Elaine. But you changed your mind.
Daniel. Yes, reluctantly. Reluctantly because I'd never wanted to put myself forward as someone special or extraordinary.
Elaine. What changed your mind?
Daniel. Experience. I'll give you an example. In the summer of 1998 I tried an experiment. So many people had asked for an opportunity to study with me that I decided to run a nightly summerlong seminar that anyone willing to travel to Houston could attend for as long as they wanted. The attendance naturally fluctuated. During one week, when one group departed and another was expected, a single member of the seminar was stranded by himself, two thousand miles from home, and I felt obliged to look after him. We spent a lot of time just getting to know each other.
At the same time, I felt he should be getting something useful from the experience. He had read all my books many times, with great care and dedication, but still wanted to know if he really had got what I was saying to the extent that he thought he had. To find out, I culled about a hundred of the more interesting questions that had collected on my Web site over the years and let him try to answer them, one by one. We were both astonished by the results of this test. To the vast majority of questions he had no answer at all. He did attempt a few answers, but when these were compared with my own, it was obvious that he and I were not at all on the same page. In other words, what the experiment proved was that, while he knew the answers to questions raised in my books, he couldn't generate new answers — answers that were nowhere to be found in my books.
Elaine. Why was this, do you think?
Daniel. We'll come to that ... Meanwhile, here's another example. A few years ago a certain nonprofit group, impressed with my work, invited me to sit in on a planning meeting for an enterprise they were undertaking. I sat and listened as the planning team brainstormed their ideas for several hours. Finally, exhausted, one of them turned to me and said, "Well, Daniel, you've been awfully quiet. What's your take on all this?"
I explained that I wasn't entirely sure of my reaction yet and wanted to let my thoughts settle a bit before speaking.
"Just your gut reaction," they insisted.
Knowing I needed time to formulate my reaction in measured and diplomatic terms, I asked them not to pressure me to speak at that point, but they eventually overrode all my excuses, assuring me that any contribution from me would be welcome.
I told them what I thought, and they stared at me in something very like horror.
Instead of informing them they should have given me the time I asked for (which I needed in order to find a way of expressing myself that would not horrify them), I feebly justified myself by saying that if I had any reason to be at such a meeting, it was to view the proceedings as a complete outsider would — as a Martian anthropologist would, in fact. With as much cordiality as they could muster, they agreed this was exactly what they wanted me to do.
There are, of course, no such things as Martians, as the folks at this meeting knew perfectly well, but they understood what I meant all the same. In fact, I later learned from an insider that members of this group are now encouraged to "think like Martians." But the original Martian anthropologist has never been invited to another meeting.
Elaine. What's your theory? Why were they horrified by what you had to say?
Daniel. One more example will answer this question. A few months ago I had a telephone conference with a group of readers in Tulsa. One of the participants made an observation that seems quite commonplace but that had a telling effect on me. He said, approximately, "What are we supposed to do? When we talk to people, we're each speaking from some conventional frame of reference. What we don't understand or share is your frame of reference. Your frame of reference seems completely alien and mysterious to us."
Suddenly I felt I had a handle on the problem. Obvious as it seems in retrospect, it was my frame of reference that was different. The young man I talked about a minute ago couldn't answer questions the way I did because he didn't share my frame of reference, and the members of the corporate group I just described were horrified because they were looking at the matter under discussion from a frame of reference that was completely different from mine.
Elaine. So what is your frame of reference? Or can you describe it?
Daniel. What I have is a shorthand for it. My frame of reference is that of a Martian anthropologist. I'm like someone who has traveled millions of miles to study a species of beings who, while supposedly rational, are destroying the very planet they live on.
Elaine. Wow. Okay. And how do you describe the frame of reference of a Martian anthropologist?
Daniel. I don't really think a description would help you much — even if I knew how to provide one. To learn how to swim, you must swim. It's not something that can be described. Someone has to throw you into the water.
Elaine[smiling]. That sounds exciting.
Daniel. It may help you to hear how I evolved into what I've become. It was certainly not by any sort of choice or desire on my part. I had not the slightest inclination to single myself out in any way.
Elaine. I think I understand.
Daniel. I remember how it began quite exactly. It was in about 1962, at the height of the Cold War, when every year or so newspapers would show, on a map of your city, the devastation that would be wrought by the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. The idea that a nuclear holocaust could occur at any moment, with the US and Soviet Union raining down nuclear warheads on each other, was not in the least far-fetched, and it was a commonplace saying that, if such a thing happened, we would be blasted back to the Stone Age. Does that sound familiar?
Elaine. I'm not sure I know what you mean.
Daniel. Haven't you ever heard of anyone talking about nuking somebody back to the Stone Age?
Elaine. Yeah. I think some general said we should just go ahead and nuke the North Vietnamese back to the Stone Age.
Daniel. And does that make sense to you?
Elaine. Again, I'm not quite sure I know what you mean.
Daniel. If we'd dropped a dozen hydrogen bombs on North Korea, would they be nuked back to the Stone Age?
Elaine. I'd have to think so.
Daniel. Suppose I said that if we dropped a dozen hydrogen bombs on North Korea, they'd be nuked back to the Middle Ages. Would that make sense to you?
Daniel. What made sense was the Stone Age. It made sense to everyone but me, because I knew we wouldn't be able function at anything like the Stone Age level. Do you see why?
Elaine[after a long pause]. It would be pointless to say that I do.
Daniel. Stone Age peoples live very well, where they've been left alone. They were living very well throughout the New World when Europeans began to arrive in the fifteenth century. They fed, clothed, and sheltered themselves almost effortlessly. You have to know that.
Daniel. If I gave you a sharp cutting tool, a strong needle, some strong thread, and a wide sheet of supple leather, could you make yourself a leather skirt?
Elaine. I think so.
Daniel. But suppose you had none of these tools and materials. For example, could you make a cutting tool sharp enough to cut leather?
Daniel. Could you make a needle strong enough to pierce the leather?
Elaine. From scratch? No.
Daniel. Could you make some thread strong enough to hold the leather together?
Elaine. Again, from scratch, no. I wouldn't even know where to begin.
Daniel. And of course, most critically, could you produce the leather?
Daniel. Stone Age peoples have all the tools they need to support themselves in a comfortable lifestyle — not a lifestyle that you or I might find comfortable but one that they found comfortable. They had not only the tools — hundreds of them — but the knowledge of how to make the tools. Whereas you and I, along with 99.99 percent of our population, have none of this knowledge. I myself couldn't even make a piece of string from scratch.
Daniel. So what would happen in the event of a nuclear holocaust? Would we be blasted back to the Stone Age?
Daniel. We'd be blasted back to an age that has no name at all. Homo habilis, our earliest ancestors, had more skills than we would have, because they evolved with those skills. Without them, they couldn't have evolved in the first place.
Elaine. Yes, I can see that.
Daniel. This may seem like a rather trivial point, but it's only a starting point — my own personal starting point. Making this observation was the beginning of my career as a Martian anthropologist. The question I asked myself — and it's an anthropologist's question — was "What are these people thinking when they say that we'd be blasted back to the Stone Age in a nuclear holocaust?"
Elaine. What are they thinking?
Daniel. What's the mindset behind the statement?
Elaineshakes her head.
Daniel. What's their imaginary picture of the Stone Age condition?
Elaine. Okay, I see where you're going. Or I think I do. What they're seeing when they think of the Stone Age is: no electricity, no radios, no televisions, no central heating, no computers, no telephones.
Daniel. An absence. A nothingness. I'm not talking about informed opinion here. But even the well informed would be shocked ten years later, when Marshall Sahlins wrote a seminal book calling Stone Age peoples "the first affluent society." But I'm not talking about ill-informed opinion, either. Well-educated people — readers of sophisticated magazines like The New Yorker — expected to see cartoons depicting our ancestors living in caves, the males armed with clubs, dragging their mates home by the hair. This was the general, cultural impression.
Elaine. I don't think it's changed much.
Daniel. You're probably right. I haven't really been checking.
Elaine. You say this was the general, cultural impression. Why wasn't it yours?
Daniel. It wasn't mine only because I questioned the received wisdom that a nuclear holocaust would throw us back to the Stone Age. I knew that we wouldn't be so lucky. It would throw us back into an age of total helplessness, where not one in ten million of us would know even as much as how to make a piece of string from scratch.
Elaine. But why did that occur to you?
Daniel. That I can't say. It doesn't seem to me to represent a stroke of genius. I doubt that I ever even mentioned it to anyone. If I had, they probably would have wondered why an intelligent person would expend mental effort on such a trivial matter.
Daniel. But you might say that discovering this bit of nonsense awakened the Martian anthropologist in me. It was just a loose thread, but pulling on it I began to unravel the fabric of our culture's received wisdom. This impression of nothingness that attached to the people from whom we ascended wasn't limited to the matter of nuclear holocaust. It was part of our general understanding of the human story.
Like everyone else, I'd had world history as a required course, and I'd retained into adulthood only one striking, world-shaking event: the Agricultural Revolution. If something had come before it, it was at best a hazy nothingness. There obviously had to be people there, but they were of no consequence. What was of consequence was the Agricultural Revolution. That was It. That was the single most momentous event in human history. It was the beginning of everything that happened of human importance ... I began to take note of capsule tellings of the human story, in books, newspapers, and magazines. Some of these were written by or quoted from actual historians. They went something like this: "Humans lived as hunter-gatherers for some three million years, then, about ten thousand years ago they abandoned hunting-gathering for the agricultural life, laying the groundwork for civilization."
Daniel. And what does that "uh-huh" mean?
Elaine. It means, let's see ... It means I recognize that telling of the story.
Daniel. And do you recognize what's wrong with it?
Elaine. It implies that humanity itself, as a whole, abandoned the hunting-gathering life and took up agriculture about ten thousand years ago.
Daniel. Which is obviously false. Ninety-five hundred years after humanity supposedly abandoned the hunting-gathering life, about three-quarters of the earth's landmass was still occupied by hunter-gatherers who had never heard of or participated in the Agricultural Revolution. Eight or ten years ago I read an article in Scientific American that in its introductory paragraphs repeated almost verbatim the conventional description of humanity's abandonment of the hunting-gathering life ten thousand years ago. It didn't occur to me at the time that I might at some future date have use for it, so I'm afraid I didn't make a note of the issue. I wrote a letter to the editors, pointing out the evident absurdity of the description, but of course it wasn't printed. The conventional fable was good enough science for them.
Excerpted from If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways by Daniel Quinn. Copyright © 2007 Daniel Quinn. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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Meet the Author
Daniel Quinn is the award-winning author of numerous books including Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, Tales of Adam, After Dachau and The Holy. He lives in Houston with his wife, Rennie.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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