Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael Stands the Test of Time

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Someone first suggested I read Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael in 2003. When they mentioned the book’s title, I refused thinking it was about religion. They assured me it was not. I then refused because, at the time, I thought myself above reading fiction. They let the issue drop.

Years passed, and every few months a new suggestion to read Ishmael would surface. In early 2006, while a graduate student studying environmental science at Indiana University, I finally relented. I was looking for some pleasure reading to take the edge off the doom and gloom my program inundated me with, and a friend I went tracking with on the weekends made a good enough case for the book that I bought a copy. It took me all of three days to read it.

Though I have read many profound books in my life, none top Ishmael’s influence on my thinking and my life trajectory. In 1999, during my fourth year in college, I attempted suicide. I will spare you the grizzly details, but know that I did this for a reason. There were parts of me that needed to die at that time in my life, but as a shy, socially awkward 22 year old I lacked the tools to facilitate that dying in a graceful way.

Though it took years for me to articulate this, what needed to die back in 1999 was not a physical part of me, but rather the story I was living. The story I lived at the time went something like this: Do good in school, go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, buy things and experiences to self-medicate as needed, and ignore the broader social and environmental consequences of that lifestyle. This is what my parents did. It was what their parents did. It was what my siblings, and friends, and their parents were doing, for better or for worse.

Plenty of people in the United States of America live this story, and never attempt suicide like I did. I was pushed to that end because I was learning enough about the world’s environmental ills that the part of the story about ignoring consequences was getting harder and harder to stomach. I became angry, anxious, ashamed, a probably a dozen other things too, and especially confused. If people knew how damaging this story is, I thought, why not come together as a society to envision a Plan B? The cognitive dissonance grated at me. That grating pushed me into the downward spiral that led to my suicide attempt.

As I pieced my life together after the attempt, I struggled. Perhaps people saw this in me, and that is where the recommendations to read Ishmael came from. When I finally sat down with the book in 2006, it was world changing. Ishmael offered a vague articulation of the new story I was looking for, and an understanding of why people hold so tightly to the story they already live even though it causes so much harm. These learnings gave me a new direction in life, and I ran with them.

About a year ago I wondered: If I were to read Ishmael again, what would I think of it? Would it move me today the same way it did 15 years ago?

It would have been easy enough to answer this question, but I resisted. It was only when a dear friend asked me to read the book with her that I set about the task. I am not ashamed to admit that I wept freely when I opened to the first page of the first chapter and re-read these opening lines:

“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.”

Not all books are as good when read a second time. As I finish re-reading Ishmael, I can say that, at least for me, not only was it every bit as rich the second time through but with all the urgencies that grace the news today it felt even more compelling than I remembered it being. Quinn’s logic held up, and his attention to the atrocities of colonization and conquest struck me as surprisingly adept.

My second reading of Ishmael has inspired me to start a reading group for the book. You can peruse the details on my Quillwood Academy website. Folks who want to wrestle with the book’s themes with other interested people will enjoy this group. I hope to see you there!

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