From the Editor:
It was a while ago now, I think, time slips faster and faster sometimes, and I have a greater tendency to forget things (see also: The Great Forgetting). In any case, I was a younger man, and still teaching back then. And it was a funny sort of coincidence that a student of mine would give me a book that was about a man who was looking for a teacher, and, in turn, more so really, about a teacher who was looking for a student—in order to save the world.
The book was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I had never heard of the book or the author, but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Maybe this happened to you too, or maybe you’re only just now finding out about this book, or maybe you’ve got a copy and never read it. Yet.
For me, like hundreds of thousands of other readers, the book was so transformational that it accompanies my thoughts almost always. It had such an effect on me that it changed the way I saw the world, for the better (and yes, there was that one time I stapled together about a hundred photocopies of the first three chapters and passed them around the small town where I was teaching. Okay, maybe I threw some at people, but in a friendly crazy-preacher-on-the-street-corner kind of way).
Ishmael is about a teacher and a student, and through a series of dialogues the book explores ideas about our place in the world, where we came from, and why we live the way we do now. And yes, the teacher is a gorilla who communicates telepathically with the main character.
Things like: “totalitarian agriculture”, forcing the world into a gigantic farm for human food; or “Mother Culture”, the constant humming in all media of the false notion that there's only “one right way to live”; or “New Tribalism”, and seeing civilisation as a collection of more sustainable, organised societies; or re-thinking the Adam and Eve story as an allegory for agriculture—and more—Daniel Quinn’s novel brought in fresh, new ideas that have sent me into many daydream-stares, thinking, like the tiger in the cage: Why? Why? Why? Why?
Here’s Daniel Quinn, in his sort-of autobiography Providence, about when Ishmael was finally finished (after about ten different drafts and versions over ten years or so), winning the Ted Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991—a prize of half a million dollars for a novel that offered “creative and positive solutions to global problems.”
Just after the award was announced, I read a review of the book somewhere—a review written in advance of reading, you understand, a review written by someone who hadn’t read the book—and this person said, “Well, look, we know there can’t be anything new in this book, because everything has been said that is possible to say. There is nothing new under the sun.”
And I thought, Wow, I wonder when that happened? When was the very last idea produced? Was it 1647, or 1763, or what? And how did they know it was the last one? Did all the thinkers of the world gather round and say, “Golly, there it is, the very last new idea in existence. From this point onward, all we can do is hash over the old ones.”
Well, of course this is nonsense. Human thought didn’t come to a standstill with Freud and Kant and Darwin any more than it did with Plato and Aristotle.
Surely, there are better, other ways to live. This is something that is explored through many of Quinn’s books, such as Beyond Civilization, The Story of B, and so on. Ultimately, that’s the main thing: these are works that inspire new thought (see also: “new minds with no programs”). And there is always hope, to leave behind what doesn’t work, and move on, move forward to something new and better.
Daniel Quinn passed away in 2018, due to aspiration pneumonia, at the age of 82. He left behind a treasure trove of works that are not only enjoyable, easy, and quick to read but will also most certainly have your mind soaring towards new ideas, new ways of thinking and, subliminally in some sense, on a journey to a better life.
Do not delay. Please enjoy.