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Literature / Ishmael (1992)

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Ishmael is a philosophical novel written by Daniel Quinn and published in 1992. The book begins with our narrator finding an ad in the paper that states:

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

Jaded by the lack of change that occurred during the 60s, the narrator answers this ad to confront this so-called teacher, and ends up learning about just how the world works.

This novel is the first in a trilogy that includes My Ishmael and The Story of B.

Not to be confused with the Star Trek novel Ishmael (1985).

This book contains the following tropes:

  • All Take and No Give: What seems to be implied by the name 'Takers', as opposed to the 'Leavers'. The full meaning is more that the Takers take the government of the world out of the gods' hands, while the Leavers are willing to leave the world in it.
  • Artistic License Statistics: The main thrust of Ishmael's argument is that increasing food production leads to an increase in population, which in turn renders the increase in food production meaningless and creates a Vicious Cycle that ends with everyone starving. Statistics have not supported this Malthusian argument; current estimates have the world stabilizing at around 10 billion people, with the main cause of starvation in impoverished countries being a lack of access and distribution rather than supply.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • The narrator is Ishmael's first successful student and learns all that he needs to know, but Ishmael dies.
    • In the sequel, we find out that he actually faked his death so his student would quit following him around and go apply what he'd been taught.
  • Cain and Abel: Takers and Leavers, basically. Specifically, Ishmael theorizes the social conditions (competition between takers and leavers) under which the framework of the story of Cain and Abel arose.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Takers and Leavers, for, roughly, hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. The difference is more complex than that, which is why he invents the new terminology.
  • Catch Your Death of Cold: Ishmael seems to do just that.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Bet you weren't expecting to find out that Ishmael is actually a telepathic gorilla.
  • Faking the Dead: As shown in the sequel My Ishmael, he didn't actually die.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The ultimate consequences of Taker cultures ruling the earth.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: The nameless narrator tells the story of Ishmael.
  • Gentle Gorilla: Ishmael is a tame, wise gorilla. He has telepathic powers to converse with the narrator.
  • God Is Flawed: The Taker reasoning, according to the narrator, is that the gods made man to rule the world, but the gods were incompetent and made man flawed. Therefore, man has to take his destiny into his own hands.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: The book argues that if people are starving, it's better to let them starve and get the population back into sustainable limits. Cruel to that particular tribe, yes, but it means future generations will be living with enough food. Increasing food production — no matter where on Earth — won't eliminate starvation, since the population will increase in proportion and people will continue to starve.
  • It Makes Sense in Context: Actually, even after you find out what the teacher really is, it still doesn't really make sense. You just roll with it.
  • Killer Gorilla: Ishmael, when he was younger, was a circus gorilla, with the advertising playing up his ferocity. He didn't quite understand why.
  • Koan:
    The rejoinder
    FOR MAN?
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Before Ishmael was called Ishmael, his name was Goliath.
  • Noble Savage: Mentioned and refuted by Ishmael.
  • Screw Destiny: What Takers evidently say to the gods and the rest of the world. It doesn't turn out well, since it makes them arrogant, and they/we start growing proud.
  • Shout-Out: Quite a lot of references including but not limited to: Stonehenge, the Piped Piper, the Rosetta Stone, the second murderer in Macbeth...
  • Stern Teacher: Ishmael teaches via the Socratic method, where the teacher asks leading questions, lets the student come to a false conclusion, and then collapses that conclusion so the student comes to the right answer through their own work.
  • Sugar Bowl: There's a bit where the eponymous gorilla attempts to illustrate his main point by making the case for how a world in which people eat other people could be one of these.