Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

4.3 231
by Daniel Quinn, Mdaniel Quinn

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The narrator of this extraordinary tale is a man in search for truth. He answers an ad in a local newspaper from a teacher looking for serious pupils, only to find himself alone in an abandoned office with a full-grown gorilla who is nibbling delicately on a slender branch. “You are the teacher?” he

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The narrator of this extraordinary tale is a man in search for truth. He answers an ad in a local newspaper from a teacher looking for serious pupils, only to find himself alone in an abandoned office with a full-grown gorilla who is nibbling delicately on a slender branch. “You are the teacher?” he asks incredulously. “I am the teacher,” the gorilla replies. Ishmael is a creature of immense wisdom and he has a story to tell, one that no other human being has ever heard. It is a story that extends backward and forward over the lifespan of the earth from the birth of time to a future there is still time to save. Like all great teachers, Ishmael refuses to make the lesson easy; he demands the final illumination to come from within ourselves. Is it man’s destiny to rule the world? Or is it a higher destiny possible for him—one more wonderful than he has ever imagined?

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A thoughtful, fearlessly low-key novel about the role of our species on the planet . . . laid out for us with an originality and a clarity that few would deny.”—The New York Times Book Review

“[Quinn entraps] us in the dialogue itself, in the sweet and terrible lucidity of Ishmael’s analysis of the human condition. . . . It was surely for this deep, clear persuasiveness of argument that Ishmael was given its huge prize.”—The Washington Post

“It is as suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent as any fiction or nonfiction book you are likely to read this or any other year.”—The Austin Chronicle

“Deserves high marks as a serious—and all too rare—effort that is unflinchingly engaged with fundamental life-and-death concerns.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Quinn ( Dreamer ) won the Turner Tomorrow Award's half-million-dollar first prize for this fascinating and odd book--not a novel by any conventional definition--which was written 13 years ago but could not find a publisher. The unnamed narrator is a disillusioned modern writer who answers a personal ad (``Teacher seeks pupil. . . . Apply in person.'') and thereby meets a wise, learned gorilla named Ishmael that can communicate telepathically. The bulk of the book consists entirely of philosophical dialogues between gorilla and man, on the model of Plato's Republic. Through Ishmael, Quinn offers a wide-ranging if highly general examination of the history of our civilization, illuminating the assumptions and philosophies at the heart of many global problems. Despite some gross oversimplifications, Quinn's ideas are fairly convincing; it's hard not to agree that unrestrained population growth and an obsession with conquest and control of the environment are among the key issues of our times. Quinn also traces these problems back to the agricultural revolution and offers a provocative rereading of the biblical stories of Genesis. Though hardly any plot to speak of lies behind this long dialogue, Quinn's smooth style and his intriguing proposals should hold the attention of readers interested in the daunting dilemmas that beset our planet. 50,000 first printing; major ad/promo. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Winner of the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, a literary competition intended to foster works of fiction that present positive solutions to global problems, this book offers proof that good ideas do not necessarily equal good literature. Ishmael, a gorilla rescued from a traveling show who has learned to reason and communicate, uses these skills to educate himself in human history and culture. Through a series of philosophical conversations with the unnamed narrator, a disillusioned Sixties idealist, Ishmael lays out a theory of what has gone wrong with human civilization and how to correct it, a theory based on the tenet that humanity belongs to the planet rather than vice versa. While the message is an important one, Quinn rarely goes beyond a didactic exposition of his argument, never quite succeeding in transforming idea into art. Despite this, heavy publicity should create demand. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/91.-- Lawrence Rungren, Bedford Free P.L., Mass.

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt


The first time I read the ad, I choked and cursed and spat and threw the paper to the floor. Since even this didn’t seem to be quite enough, I snatched it up, marched into the kitchen, and shoved it into the trash. While I was there, I made myself a little breakfast and gave myself some time to cool down. I ate and thought about something else entirely. That’s right. Then I dug the paper out of the trash and turned back to the Personals section, just to see if the damn thing was still there and just the way I remembered it. It was.

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

An earnest desire to save the world! Oh, I liked that. That was rich indeed. An earnest desire to save the world–yes, that was splendid. By noon, two hundred mooncalfs, softheads, boobies, ninnyhammers, noodleheads, gawkies, and assorted oafs and thickwits would doubtless be lined up at the address given, ready to turn over all their worldlies for the rare privilege of sitting at the feet of some guru pregnant with the news that all will be well if everyone will just turn around and give his neighbor a big hug.

You will wonder: Why is this man so indignant? So bitter? It’s a fair question. In fact, it’s a question I was asking myself.

The answer goes back to a time, a couple decades ago, when I’d had the silly notion that the thing I most wanted to do in the world was . . . to find a teacher. That’s right. I imagined I wanted a teacher–needed a teacher. To show me how one goes about doing something that might be called . . . saving the world.

Stupid, no? Childish. Naïve. Simple. Callow. Or just fundamentally dumb. In one so manifestly normal in other respects, it needs explaining.

It came about in this way.

During the children’s revolt of the sixties and seventies, I was just old enough to understand what these kids had in mind–they meant to turn the world upside down–and just young enough to believe they might actually succeed. It’s true. Every morning when I opened my eyes, I expected to see that the new era had begun, that the sky was a brighter blue and the grass a brighter green. I expected to hear laughter in the air and to see people dancing in the streets, and not just kids–everyone! I won’t apologize for my naïveté; you only have to listen to the songs to know that I wasn’t alone.

Then one day when I was in my mid-teens, I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn’t been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this? Bewildered by this? It seemed so. Everyone else seemed to be able to pass it off with a cynical grin that said, “Well, what did you really expect? There’s never been any more than this and never will be any more than this. Nobody’s out to save the world, because nobody gives a damn about the world, that was just a bunch of goofy kids talking. Get a job, make some money, work till you’re sixty, then move to Florida and die.”

I couldn’t shrug it away like this, and in my innocence I thought there had to be someone out there with an unknown wisdom who could dispel my disillusionment and bewilderment: a teacher.

Well, of course there wasn’t.

I didn’t want a guru or a kung fu master or a spiritual director.

I didn’t want to become a sorcerer or learn the zen of archery or meditate or align my chakras or uncover past incarnations. Arts and disciplines of that kind are fundamentally selfish; they’re all designed to benefit the pupil–not the world. I was after something else entirely, but it wasn’t in the Yellow Pages or anywhere else that I could discover.

In Hermann Hesse’s The Journey to the East, we never find out what Leo’s awesome wisdom consists of. This is because Hesse couldn’t tell us what he himself didn’t know. He was like me–he just yearned for there to be someone in the world like Leo, someone with a secret knowledge and a wisdom beyond his own. In fact, of course, there is no secret knowledge; no one knows anything that can’t be found on a shelf in the public library. But I didn’t know that then.

So I looked. Silly as it sounds now, I looked. By comparison, going after the Grail would have made more sense. I won’t talk about it, it’s too embarrassing. I looked until I wised up. I stopped making a fool of myself, but something died inside of me–something that I’d always sort of liked and admired. In its place grew a scar–a tough spot but also a sore spot.

And now, years after I’d given up the search, here was some charlatan advertising in the newspaper for the very same young dreamer that I’d been fifteen years ago.

But this still doesn’t explain my outrage, does it?

Try this: You’ve been in love with someone for a decade–someone who barely knows you’re alive. You’ve done everything, tried everything to make this person see that you’re a valuable, estimable person, and that your love is worth something. Then one day you open up the paper and glance at the Personals column, and there you see that your loved one has placed an ad . . . seeking someone worthwhile to love and be loved by.

Oh, I know it’s not exactly the same. Why should I have expected this unknown teacher to have contacted me instead of advertising for a pupil? Contrariwise, if this teacher was a charlatan, as I assumed, why would I have wanted him to contact me?

Let it go, I was being irrational. It happens, it’s allowed.


I had to go down there, of course–had to satisfy myself that it was just another scam. You understand. Thirty seconds would do it, a single look, ten words out of his mouth. Then I’d know. Then I could go home and forget about it.

When I got there, I was surprised to find it was a very ordinary sort of office building, full of second-rate flacks, lawyers, dentists, travel agents, a chiropractor, and a private investigator or two. I’d expected something a little more atmospheric–a brownstone with paneled walls, high ceilings, and shuttered windows, perhaps. I was looking for Room 105, and I found it in the back, where a window would overlook the alley. The door was uninformative. I pushed it open and stepped into a large, empty room. This uncommon space had been created by knocking down interior partitions, the marks of which could still be seen on the bare hardwood floor.

That was my first impression: emptiness. The second was olfactory; the place reeked of the circus–no, not the circus, the menagerie: unmistakable but not unpleasant. I looked around. The room was not entirely empty. Against the wall at the left stood a small bookcase containing thirty or forty volumes, mainly on history, prehistory, and anthropology. A lone overstuffed chair stood in the middle, facing away, toward the wall at the right, and looking like something the movers had left behind. Doubtless this was reserved for the master; his pupils would kneel or crouch on mats arranged in a semicircle at his knee.

And where were these pupils, who I had predicted would be present by the hundreds? Had they perhaps come and been led away like the children of Hamelin? A film of dust lay undisturbed on the floor to disprove this fancy.

There was something odd about the room, but it took me another look round to figure out what it was. In the wall opposite the door stood two tall casement windows admitting a feeble light from the alley; the wall to the left, common with the office next door, was blank. The wall to the right was pierced by a very large plate-glass window, but this was plainly not a window to the outside world, for it admitted no light at all; it was a window into an adjacent room, even dimmer than the one I occupied. I wondered what object of piety was displayed there, safely beyond the touch of inquisitive hands. Was it some embalmed Yeti or Bigfoot, made of cat fur and papier-mâché? Was it the body of a UFOnaut cut down by a National Guardsman before he could deliver his sublime message from the stars (“We are brothers. Be nice.”)?

Because it was backed by darkness, the glass in this window was black–opaque, reflective. I made no attempt to see beyond it as I approached; I was the spectacle under observation. On arrival, I continued to gaze into my own eyes for a moment, then rolled the focus forward beyond the glass–and found myself looking into another pair of eyes.

I fell back, startled. Then, recognizing what I’d seen, I fell back again, now a little frightened.

The creature on the other side of the glass was a full-grown gorilla.

Full-grown says nothing, of course. He was terrifyingly enormous, a boulder, a sarsen of Stonehenge. His sheer mass was alarming in itself, even though he wasn’t using it in any menacing way. On the contrary, he was half-sitting, half-reclining most placidly, nibbling delicately on a slender branch he carried in his left hand like a wand.

I did not know what to say. You will be able to judge how unnerved I was by this fact: that it seemed to me I should speak–excuse myself, explain my presence, justify my intrusion, beg the creature’s pardon. I felt it was an affront to gaze into his eyes, but I was paralyzed, helpless. I could look at nothing else in the world but his face, more hideous than any other in the animal kingdom because of its similarity to our own, yet in its way more noble than any Greek ideal of perfection.

There was in fact no obstacle between us. The pane of glass would have parted like a tissue had he touched it. But he seemed to have no idea of touching it. He sat and gazed into my eyes and nibbled the end of his branch and waited. No, he wasn’t waiting; he was merely there, had been there before I arrived and would be there when I’d left. I had the feeling I was of no more significance to him when a passing cloud is to a shepherd resting on a hillside.

As my fear began to ebb, consciousness of my situation returned. I said to myself that the teacher was plainly not on hand, that there was nothing to keep me there, that I should go home. But I didn’t like to leave with the feeling that I’d accomplished nothing at all. I looked around, thinking I’d leave a note, if I could find something to write on (and with), but there was nothing. Nevertheless, this search, with the thought of written communication in mind, brought to my attention something I’d overlooked in the room that lay beyond the glass; it was a sign or poster hanging on the wall behind the gorilla. It read:


This sign stopped me–or rather, this text stopped me. Words are my profession; I seized these and demanded that they explain themselves, that they cease to be ambiguous. Did they imply that hope for gorillas lay in the extinction of the human race or in its survival? It could be read either way.

It was, of course, a koan–meant to be inexplicable. It disgusted me for that reason, and for another reason: because it appeared that this magnificent creature beyond the glass was being held in captivity for no other reason than to serve as a sort of animate illustration for this koan.

You really ought to do something about this, I told myself angrily. Then I added: It would be best if you sat down and were still.

I listened to the echo of this strange admonishment as if it were a fragment of music I couldn’t quite identify. I looked at the chair and wondered: Would it be best to sit down and be still? And if so, why? The answer came readily enough: Because, if you are still, then you will be better able to hear. Yes, I thought, that is undeniably so.

For no conscious reason, I lifted my eyes to those of my beastly companion in the next room. As everyone knows, eyes speak. A pair of strangers can effortlessly reveal their mutual interest and attraction in a single glance. His eyes spoke, and I understood. My legs turned to jelly, and I barely managed to reach the chair without collapsing.

“But how?” I said, not daring to speak the words aloud.

“What does it matter?” he replied as silently. “It’s so, and nothing more needs to be said.”

“But you–” I sputtered. “You are . . .”

I found that, having come to the word, and with no other word to put in its place, I could not speak it.

After a moment he nodded, as if in acknowledgment of my difficulty. “I am the teacher.”

For a time, we gazed into each other’s eyes, and my head felt as empty as a derelict barn.

Then he said: “Do you need time to collect yourself?”

“Yes!” I cried, speaking aloud for the first time.

He turned his massive head to one side to peer at me curiously. “Will it help you to listen to my story?”

“Indeed it will,” I said. “But first–if you will–please tell me your name.”

He stared at me for a while without replying and (as far as I could tell at that time) without expression. Then he proceeded as if I hadn’t spoken at all.

“I was born somewhere in the forests of equatorial West Africa,” he said. “I’ve never made any effort to find out exactly where, and see no reason to do so now. Do you happen to know anything about animal collecting for zoos and circurses?”

I looked up, startled. “I know nothing at all about animal collecting.”

“At one time, or at least during the thirties, the method commonly used with gorillas was this: On finding a band, collectors would shoot the females and pick up all the infants in sight.”

“How terrible,” I said, without thinking.

The creature replied with a shrug. “I have no actual memory of the event–though I have memories of still earlier times. In any case, the Johnsons sold me to a zoo in some small northeastern city–I can’t say which, for I had no awareness of such things as yet. There I lived and grew for several years.”

He paused and nibbled absentmindedly on his branch for a while, as if gathering his thoughts.

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Ishmael (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition) 4.3 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 231 reviews.
Jewelies42 More than 1 year ago
A reviewer of this book once wrote that she defines all the many books she's read into two categories: those "before Ishmael" and "after Ishmael". I agree, but with more muscle...I tend to define my entire worldview (yes, it is THAT provocative!) into ideas I had Before/After Ishmael. I've given away over 20 copies of this book to friends and family with the hope that it will touch the people I love with the same kind of grace I felt when I read it. Truly remarkable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I decided upon this book because I was told it was a must read. If you like preachy books without explanation then this just might be for you. It felt like "The Secret" where the author is demeaning and telling you how you should feel instead of just proving their piece. I do not recommend to any age group. Boring, preachy, slow... etc
Guest More than 1 year ago
I will agree with those who said this book was hard to get through. It was. I didn't enjoy the style of writing or the tone of the book and I didn't feel a connection to any of the characters. Normally those points would not allow me to enjoy a book at all. The strange thing is that I HAD to get through this book - because the ideas Quinn wanted to convey were so powerful. I always tell people that this book is worth getting through to get the background information and then move on to a much more well written book by the same author, 'The Story of B'.
mistermomo More than 1 year ago
Not nearly as eye-opening as Quinn clearly thinks it is, but has some interesting points.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Horrible. Just horrible. I wasted $14 dollars on this book. I give it a star because I cannot go lower. Honestly, how does Ishmael change people's lives? It's about a contradicting gorilla, guys!!! (LIFESAVING ALERT)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not enjoy this book. I admit there were bits of interesting parts. However, it felt as if I was almost reading a bible. This is not a favorable feeling. I prefer novels with more of a plot, which Ishmeal, in my opinion, lacks. Although the language is appropriate and the novel is even well written, I detest the story line. I don't recommend this book for those looking for a creative experience. 
Emery42 More than 1 year ago
Ishmael will challenge the way you think and live, in a very good way. After reading this book you will want to do anything and everything to save the world.
JAJbooks More than 1 year ago
I read a lot of reviews on this book before buying, and most of them talked about a life changing experience. Well, I completely agree. This is the story I've always wanted, and it has confirmed the way I've always felt about humanity and the world as a whole. This book well forever change the way you look at the world. By the end of the book I was on the verge of crying. GET THIS BOOK.
Brigit More than 1 year ago
Ishmael was recommended by a friend, and I am very glad it was. What an utterly unique and thought provoking book this is. If you like an intellectual challenge, if you like to have your thoughts and beliefs challenged, then you will enjoy this story. A teacher, unlike any other, is looking for a student. The student he is looking for needs to have a strong desire to save the world. The student he gets thinks he knows what he is getting in to, but after his initial shock, he is challenged into having to find the answers buried deep within his own subconscious and in mankind's own history. There are so many interesting facts and ideas brought up in their interactions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Some people believe that the world was created for man, however other species believe that the world was created not only for man, but for all species and creatures; and that man is just a part of the world's species. Will other species continue to evolve and in the future pass the evolved species of man? As our world continues to change and evolve, what will become of man? How can man stop destroying the world? "TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." (Daniel Quinn, P 4) In the beginning, there was man, in the end, no one can predict what lies ahead for the world and all of it's inhabitants. The question is always asked in our society how did man come to be, along with the story that was told by mankind's ancestors? There are many different versions of how mankind came to be in a world full of growth and development. Some believe in the theory of evolution through the rapid development of primitive species. Others seek and find comfort in the story of the gods and the meaning behind Adam and Eve. Many are unsure how man came to be, and no one can really prove who is right in a society filled with opposition and variety. The readers of this book will find "Ishmael" not only intriguing but persuasive as well. "From now on I will divide the books I have read into two categories-the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after" (Jim Britell, Whole Earth Review Front Cover) Many readers of Ishmael will find themselves questioning their own beliefs on how man came to be, and how Ishmael has altered entirely the way they view their own actions on this Earth. Readers will be very intrigued by the appearance Ishmael portrays in the book and how the pupil is just a normal human on Earth has his whole life changed due to how Ishmael portrays mankind, him not being human. Ishmael is suspenseful and inventive. The world seeks to fix the flaws that have been caused by mankind however only mankind can fix these flaws in order to survive and continue to conquer in peace with all other species around them. Daniel Quinn, the author of Ishmael was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1935, and went on to study at the St. Louis University along with the University of Vienna in Austria, and Loyola University of Chicago. However in 1975, he abandoned a long career in publishing to become a freelance writer which included later writing Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, Providence, and Beyond Civilization. ( Ishmael was originally written in 1977. It ended up being written six different times until the final copy was published in 1990. Daniel Quinn has written over a dozen books, and Ishmael was the inspiration and plot behind the 1999 film, Instinct starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding, Jr. This film received the Genesis award in 2000.
cap_man More than 1 year ago
I have never come across something that has changed my outlook on life so drastically. This is a must read.
RedShikari More than 1 year ago
This books seems a bit silly whenever I try to describe it: "Well, you see, a gorilla teaches a man how to save the world." That doesn't do it any kind of justice. What this book will do is change the way you see the world and the people in it. You might start acting a bit differently, start thinking of third-world countries with a bit more respect, and you might start up a conversation with the gorilla at the local zoo. Read this one just to get yourself questioning the world a bit, if for nothing else.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a phenomenal story that, while fiction, sets your mind in motion. I have bought several copies because I felt that the people I love just had to read it. All students would benefit from this book as well as the recreational reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book changed my perspective on life, opended my eyes to ideas and enlightenment I never knew existed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quinn brings up ideas that society has been recycling for ages. Although the basis of his ideas are not unique, he portrayed them in a way that left readers thinking. The reader can easily tell that the purpose of Quinn¿s book was to ¿help save the world¿. Although this idea sounds ridiculous, he offers information that is socially significant. While his ideas present positive solutions to universal problems, he tends to ramble. He never reaches past the foundation of the ideas to make the fiction piece more organic. However, it seems that Quinn¿s purpose was not to make an artistic story, but to plainly help humans relate to their world. This book points out the flaws in society, and easily changes the way the reader views the world¿s situation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was given this book by a friend and told that it was a must read. This is going to be a very unpopular star rating, but... Daniel Quinn is spot-on in saying that Mother Culture has brain washed the masses, even the more enlightened ones.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A book illustrating the idiosynchrasies of society
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everyone should read this book at least once in their life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great read! Really made yiu think about our culture.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It sucks the story is very weird and a talking gorilla thats just stupid as hell and at the was very stupid but over all i dont like it at all dont buy it at all