Ishmael book cover hold up in front of book case

Ishmael, is it worth reading? – Quick Book Review

An ad in the newspaper reads: “A mentor seeks a student with an earnest desire to save the world”. At first our protagonist becomes annoyed of the pretentious wording — desire to change the world?! He has be disillusioned by the world, and the text reminds him of his youth’s idealism growing up in the counterculture of the 1960:s.

Meeting the Gorilla

He also becomes curious, because a teacher like this what’s what he so desperately seemed in his youth. Not being able to shake off the idea he decides to seek out the “guru”. To his surprise, the teacher is Ishmael, a giant gorilla.

Doom and gloom is what’s waiting for you in this philosophical and brain-tickling classic.

About the book

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is a Socratic dialogue between a stubborn student and wise primate discussing the state of humanity and how we can course correct before it everything goes to shit,  bringing all other species down along with it.. Why a gorilla?! Its actually not explained but it works with the story!

Video review of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

Video book review of Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

Humanity is doomed

Civilized man is doomed because we don’t play by the laws of life. Instead of man living like  “Man belongs to the world”, in the manner all other animals live, civilized man has inverted the law into “The world belongs to man”. 

As a result, humans have been overreaching, created an unsustainable way of living,  and as a consequence signed our own death sentence.

Notes and Highlights

📝 “The disaster occurred when, ten thousand years ago, the people of your culture said, we’re as wise as the gods and can rule the world as well as they.’

Agriculture is to blame, according to Ishmael. Agriculture leads to population growth. Population growth to increased food production. Increase food production to population growth —as a result of this endless  loop we see deforestation, pollution and extinct wildlife.

📝 The nature of mother culture:

The story our culture tells us is that humans are special, yet imperfect. We are meant to create paradise on earth but we repeatedly screw it up because we humans are inherently flawed. And we can’t fix ourselves because we believe knowing how to live is unknowable for us.

📝 Takers and leavers

The bulk of the story revolves around the the concept of Taker Culture and Leaver Culture. These are the names given to the two two distinct styles of living in human societies. Leavers are the name given to people who never adopted agriculture and live like hunter gatherers.

Takers are people who took on agricultural practices, that eventually lead to the idea of property, and they built the civilized world. These where the people who broke the natural order of things, and like they where gods, decided that they could rule over themselves, other people, and other species. By accounts of old stories— Adam and Eve and Kane and Able—Ishmael compares the mentality and the cultural differences between the Takers and Leavers that have resulted in a world at the brink of extinction.

📝 “What will happen if you feed the starving millions?” Ishmael asks rethoically. 

They will reproduce! Creating more starving people. A big topic of the book is overpopulation, and how starvation is a function of nature. That fighting it is futile.

Would you turn back the clock?

One question Ishmael ask his student is if he could teleport back to a Leaver existence, would he do it?

I’m not sure I would, and my ambiguity about this question baffles me. I know agriculture probably was the biggest mistake in history, and that a “natural” life is better for us mentally and physically. So why do I hesitate?  

⚖️ Book Verdict:

Is Ishmael worth reading still? Given it came out in 1992? It is! And it absolutely beginner friendly since it’s philosophy dressed in a fictional disguise.

I never really read anything that  talks about ideas population restrictions before. It does a good job of slowly open you up the topic — a topic that can be quite controversial if not handled with care.

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ out of 5

Find more great book to read on my book reviews page and the Great Books List
Video Reviews every week on YouTube

Further Reading

If you enjoyed Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, then you need to check out these books:

Straw Dogs

Straw Dogs by John Gray is a fantastic critique the humanitarian worship  of progress (video review) A book recommend everyone to read.

Scary Smart

Ishmael revolves around the big challenges humans are facing and so does Scary Smart by Mo Gawdat. This book is about the immediate advent of AI. Humanities biggest challenge the coming years.

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