Hm, where to begin. When I first finished Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel, Ishmael (1992, 3.94, 4.2), as an older teen, I spent four days in agnostic turmoil. My faith in God shaken, I somehow found my way back in the end. However, my life certainly wasn’t the same, and I would often remember this novel as the years wore on, intent on comparing it to the religion of my upbringing, and on showing all the world how the telepathic gorilla narrating Quinn’s philosophical ideas had gotten it all wrong.
Fast forward ten years and here I am, reading it again to finally stick a fork in it for once and for all. Online reviews are positive on the whole, but a longer glance quickly shows this is but a result of averaging extreme polarization. I fell into the “this book has changed my life” category as a teen; as a young adult, I remain convinced so, but see that it also oversimplified many things, and that it isn’t as steeped in science as it seems at first blush. However, its central tenet is something I’m slowly coming to accept: that humans may just be another stepping stone on the road that is evolution, or, in a philosophy contradicting that of many of the world’s main religions, that humans aren’t the purpose of creation. Something that hits you rather hard when you’re a young, devout Catholic.
Ishmael does this in a few ways, primarily through examining the agricultural revolution and a few biblical myths in a new light. To be frank, a lot of the conclusions Quinn draws (especially his biblical interpretations) felt like pulling teeth. This is the main reason this book gets only ★★★¼ stars. There is no character development beyond a depressed yuppie I’d hate to meet in a bar and an omniscient-seeming gorilla with a pseudoscientific backing explaining how he came about his telepathy, the point of which seems to be less explanatory than it does to subtly sneak him into your mind as a competent authority on anthropology. I mean, if he figured out telepathy, what he says must be true… right?
Plot development gets a shy ¼ star, and even this only because of its pretty interesting reinterpretations; complexity the same because a lot of its style was reminiscent of flaying a dead horse, with the main character seeming to only pause his “why’s” to drop an “I don’t know” (though to my adolescent mind even this was ravishing). However, where this book really shines is originality: two stars! It is certainly one of those reads that divide your life into before and after segments. Recommendability sneaks in a full ¾ stars for this reason — I’d recommend it to anyone who was raised with a pretty traditional, mainstream way of thinking, and who may be ready to explore less familiar philosophical territory — especially young adults. At the very least, it will teach you to question things; though painful, the philosophy with which it leaves you will be stronger if only because it will now be something you actively chose. Just be careful of cognitive dissonance — make sure you’re ready to follow the truth, wherever that may lead.