Ishmael is a half ton silverback gorilla. He is a student of ecology, life, freedom, and the human condition. He is also a teacher. He teaches that which all humans need to learn — must learn — if our species, and the rest of life on Earth as we know it, is to survive.
In 1989 Ted Turner created a fellowship to be awarded to a work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. The winner, chosen from 2500 entries worldwide, was a work of startling clarity and depth: Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, a Socratic journey that explores the most challenging problem humankind has ever faced: How to save the world from ourselves.
The book opens with a deceptively ordinary personals ad: “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world.” Seeking a direction for his life, a young man answers the ad and is startled to find that the teacher is a lowland gorilla named Ishmael, a creature uniquely placed to vision anew the human story.
Ishmael’s paradigm of history is startlingly different from the one wired into our cultural consciousness. For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.
That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren’t born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.
Since Bantam first published Daniel Quinn’s utterly unique novel Ishmael in 1992, the novel has grown into a bestseller. Ishmael has garnered rave reviews and has been adopted for classroom use in schools coast-to-coast, including Dartmouth, the Naval Academy and Stanford University. Along the way, Ishmael gathered a devoted following as thousands upon thousands of readers have written to Quinn to express how the book has changed their lives.
Quinn’s first version of the award-winning novel was written in 1977 and was followed by seven more complete and distinct versions. The character Ishmael appeared only in the eighth, and final, version. This is also the only version written as a novel. “I was ready to admit defeat when Ted Turner announced his plans for the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship. I felt, if I read him right, he was looking for exactly the sort of book I was struggling to write, and this encouraged me to give it one more try. I’m certainly glad I did.”
Quinn says Ishmael is a story about hope. “I think we have a much finer and more exciting destiny than conquering and ruling the world,” he says. “This book shows that we can learn about what that destiny is from the life around us – and in Ishmael it just happens that life speaks with the voice of a lowland gorilla.”
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