What We’re Reading: Ishmael

Updated: Jun 27

Written by: Alyssa Farrell

This month, the Seaside Sustainability Book Club read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, a 1992 philosophical novel. The novel approaches the issues of sustainability and ethics via a simple conversation between the two characters, a teacher and a pupil.


The novel is written from the perspective of the pupil. The narrator comes across an ad in the personals section that says, “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” Too curious to stay away, the narrator goes to the address where he is drawn into a conversation with a gorilla who can communicate telepathically.


Ishmael, the gorilla, has a unique perspective on the relationship between humans and the planet they call home. Ishmael separates humans into two groups, leavers and takers. Leavers lived before the agricultural revolution, who took only what they needed to survive. Takers, post-agricultural revolution, have destroyed cultures and the planet we call home. Our “taker” approach is unsustainable and will ultimately lead to our destruction.


As Ishmael explains, "There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”


This quote shows Ishmael’s view that our current lifestyle is unsustainable. As the human narrator progresses throughout Ishmael’s teaching, he comes to understand and accept Ishmael’s argument. In Chapter 12 the narrator explains, “The premise of the Taker story is that the world belongs to man.’ I thought for a couple minutes, then I laughed. 'It’s almost too neat. The premise of the Leaver story is man belongs to the world.’”


Ishmael’s argument is that this mindset comes from an incorrect first premise. This premise is that the Earth was created to sustain human life. If that premise is untrue, then our actions are incorrect. The planet is not ours for the taking. The fix for this unsustainable practice is a change in our mindset. Instead of believing that the world owes us, we must owe the world.


Have you read Ishmael? If so, what is your main takeaway from the novel? Leave your thoughts and any book recommendations for our book club below!

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