Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ishmael: How I was enchanted by a book that's popular in vegan circles

I think the first time I heard about the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn was in a somewhat testy debate with a vegan commenter on The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles. He cited the book to counter a statement I'd made about humans and hunting.

After that, I kept noticing references to Ishmael in vegan circles on the net. Finally, a colleague I met at a symposium on food ethics recommended it - she not knowing I was a hunter, I guessing that she might be vegetarian.

If this is a book that's influencing people who think we shouldn't eat animals, I thought to myself, perhaps I should read it to learn more about where they're coming from. So I ordered the book.

This week I opened it and braced for a 263-page diatribe against my way of life. Riveted, I kept turning pages, waiting for the indictment.

It never came. Instead I found a message that resonated with me deeply, actually throwing some weight behind the ideas I've been chewing on in my continuing quest to understand why I love hunting so much.

The book purports to be a novel, but it's really just a surprisingly irresistible discussion between a student (human) and teacher (gorilla) about what's wrong with the dominant human culture.

Based on that premise alone, I can see the book's allure for vegans, who tend to believe that what we are is fundamentally wrong - they feel guilty about our omnivorous nature, and they seem to wear veganism as a fig leaf of dietary shame.

But the author doesn't really go there. His point is that the dominant human culture breaks the fundamental law of how we should live by acting as though we alone, among all life forms, own the earth, viewing it as something that needs to be conquered and dominated, and seeking to systematically eliminate competitors for our food. His culprit isn't meat eating, but rather agriculture, which is the spark 10,000 years ago that made us - for better or worse - what we are today.

Much of the book focuses on the meaning of our creation story - Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Our culture was born of the people who ate that fruit and were banished from the Garden of Eden, forced to gain our bread from the sweat of our brow - agriculture.

Ishmael is about the student's quest to learn how we should live, and the example Quinn turns to is the hunter-gatherer cultures - those that weren't banished from the Garden.

And this is the part that really began to enchant me.

Ever since my little epiphany last January about why we hunt, I've begun to believe that hunting represents our quest to regain what we've lost - a life in which all of what we needed could be found in our environment. All we needed to sustain ourselves was knowledge of that environment and the time it takes to hunt and gather.

Hunting is an escape from a system 10,000 years in the making, a system in which millions and millions of people believe food - animal or vegetable - comes from supermarkets.

Hunting is the quest for Eden.

This thought has made me really hungry to learn more about both our creation story and hunter-gatherer cultures, and that's the hunger that Ishmael has begun to satisfy.

I am not alone in finding something to love about this book. Ishmael has a devoted following. There's even a website created by the author to help connect nearly 10,000 readers who are enchanted with his message.

But plenty of people hate the book just as much. Check out some of the reviews on Good Reads.

Do I take Ishmael as gospel, or Quinn as a prophet? No. As I read through the book, I found a number of places where I could poke little holes in it. I'm guessing Biblical scholars - religious or not - might take issue with parts of the book as well.

And I'm certainly not ready to chuck everything I am now to become a hunter-gatherer. How could I live without my blog?!?

Could it be that my my appreciation of the book is just self-serving? I see hunting as my connection to our hunter-gatherer roots, and here's a book that declares those roots are a better way to live than what we've been doing for the past 10,000 years. It validates my quest for Eden.

Perhaps. But that doesn't detract from what Ishmael is: a thought-provoking look at the elements of our culture that are so deeply ingrained that we can't see them - that it takes a fictional gorilla to point out what's all around us.

If you like being forced to think differently once in a while, this book is well worth reading.

And by the way - that vegan who mentioned the book on Rasch's blog? Boy, he was misquoting it frightfully. There is no anti-hunting message in this book.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


hodgeman said...

Sounds intriguing. Thanks for the heads up!

I find some of the most enlightening books are those that make me think about why I am who I am.

My own views on hunting changed substantially after spending some time with subsistence hunters in Alaska.

Holly Heyser said...

Hodgeman, I'd love to hear more about that. Have you blogged on that topic?

native said...

Excellent and very contemplative thoughts Holly!

"They seem to wear veganisim as a fig leaf of their dietary shame" is the sentence which stands out the most for me!
Very symbolic and brings to surface many avenues of conscientious musings.

Although I will say that what puzzles me most, is the fact that vegans/vegetarians most often jump upon their soapbox so readily.
They more often than not, vehemently condemn the lifestyle of a meat eater while upholding their dietary choices as a move towards a more enlightened and superior consciousness.
And they spend so much wasted energy trying to "shame" meat eaters into that "perceived" superior intellect.

I have yet to see a hunter act in that very same manner,

I will read the book to see for myself though!

Phillip said...

Excellent review of an excellent book, Holly. It's been a few years since I last read Ishmael,and a while now since I even thought about it, but it's one of those books I passed along to close friends any time I could.

No, it's not gospel, and it's full of "stretches", but the very idea of the cultural myth, and how humans find ourselves living by it even as it evolves was fascinating. It's a really keen insight, for all its flaws, that kinda hit a spot in my imagination.

I've always hated the way certain people or groups of people insist on denying our animal nature... and the persistant idea that we're somehow above or separate from the "lower" animals. The book challenges those ideas with logic and intellect.

I'd never heard that this was big with the vegans, and can't completely understand how they don't see right through themselves when they read it. But there ya go...

sister said...

I enjoyed your comments and actually want to read the book (hope it's in paperback). Holly, have you ever read the Bible to get the creation history straight from the creator? I can almost hear the heavy sighs, but that desire in you is a spiritual one and please don't ignore it. If you want a great study aid I have one for you, just email me. I'm enjoying your blog because it makes me feel like I do after a phonecall from you!
Love ya, Les

SimplyOutdoors said...

I'm intrigued now, and would love to read the book just to see what it has to say.

And I'm not surprised that the vegan misquoted it!!!

Bobby Nations said...

Holly, thanks for the tip on what sounds like a pretty fascinating book. I'll add it to my "To Be Read" pile just to keep informed about what's going on in the wide cultural world.

_the example Quinn turns to is the hunter-gatherer cultures - those that weren't banished from the Garden._

Not to be pedantic, but the Biblical story of Eden doesn't match a number of points in this statement.

First, there were no hunters in the Garden, per se, as Adam, Eve, and their descendents (if any were born before the expulsion) weren't allowed to eat meat. In fact, no one was allowed to do so until after the Great Flood and the covenant that God made with Noah.

Second, there were no cultures that stayed in the Garden, as it was most definitely an "everyone out of the pool" moment in our history. The reasons for kicking everyone out are actually kind of fascinating from a philosophical point of view involving our ability to forget our sins. It's a bit too involved for a comment, but if you're interested I would be happy to go into more detail offline.

I can't know for sure without reading the book, but it appears that Quinn advocates the idea that Adam and Eve were one of several groups living in Eden. If so, then I'd raise a third objection to his characterization.

It's so easy to get the basics correct. After all, the entire story is only a couple of pages long. So, when someone distorts to make a point, it grates. The lessons in the story of Eden are profound and still applicable today.

Holly Heyser said...

Native: Weeeeellllll, I must admit sometimes I get on my soapbox about our dietary choices. But I don't insist that other people share my choice. I don't care if they don't eat meat. But I'm glad you liked that line - it was one I enjoyed writing.

Phillip: You put that very well - the stretches don't really diminish from the overall impact of the book. The peril is in taking it literally, or as science (which is what the vegan commenter on Albert's blog did - he literally cited Ishmael as a source of scientific fact. That'd be like quoting Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code as a source of historical/Biblical fact, which it is not.)

Les: I'm so glad you commented - I'd hoped you would.

Ishmael is in paperback, and if I weren't about to make a lot of markings on mine on a second reading, I'd send you mine. (And if you buy it on Amazon by clicking the "buy now" link above, I'll get a commission at no extra charge to you!)

You'll be happy to know that sitting underneath Ishmael on my desk is a Bible - it was actually a college textbook for my Biblical Anthropology class. It's relatively comprehensible, language-wise. But as Bobby noted, the relevant portion of Genesis here is mighty short, which is why I'm also interested in a broader study of many creation stories, and various people's interpretations of them (which is where Ishmael stands with me).

Bobby: I knew that someone like you could make the points you've made. The truth is I was raised in a family that proclaimed itself agnostic but was essentially atheist, so my knowledge of Biblical stories is pretty minimal - my greatest study of them was in another college class ("Magic, Witchcraft and Religion," which you think might be hostile to religion, but actually left my little college freshman atheist mind with a greater openness to the importance of religion, which was a big switch for me).

My personal take on creation stories (from all cultures/religions) is that they're all rooted in deep truth, but I take them more as metaphors than literal truths. I suspect you and my sister will disagree with me on this, but that's my perspective. If you read Ishmael, I suspect you'll find that Quinn deals with the metaphor, rather than the literal truth of Genesis.

If you can let go of resistance to that - as any reader must let go to resistance to the idea, for example, of a gorilla who is a wise and telepathic teacher, you can open yourself to the broader message and examine it on its own merits. I suspect (just guessing) that's why this book was written as a "novel" and not an academic examination of the subject matter - it gave the author some literary license, the same kind Dan Brown had in Da Vinci Code.

I'd be very interested in what you and my sister make of that broader message if you can temporarily suspend your irritation with the Biblical inconsistencies.

Thanks, everyone, for commenting!

Bobby Nations said...

I'm grinning now because I'd completely forgotton about the telepathic gorilla. In that light, a little license with the account of Eden is to be expected. ;-)

I'm off to the library to check out a copy and read it. It'll probably take a couple of days because this is my week to hunt as much as possible before more adult commitments reassert themselves. Then again, I could just stick it in my game bag and read it in the woods. A fit setting, wouldn't you say? Tata!

Josh said...

As another Christian here, I'd like to add that many Christians read the biblical accounts of creation and such as myth in the true, beautiful definition of the term: stories about things that are true, whether or not they are fact.

Holly, I'm fascinated by creation myths, too, and during my short stint in the MA program for liberal arts, I focused on myths and comparative mythology. I had a particular affinity for the early Isrealites' stories as a shepharding, nomadic repudiation of the neighboring urbanizing cultures, as described in the myths of, say, Gilgamesh.

I've never read the story of Eden as an ag. myth, and frankly, I'm a tad skeptical, especially in light of the later Cain and Abel story (God's preference for Abel's sacrifice is an open shunning of sedentary agriculture, and probably urbanization).

I love this conversation!

r. hurd said...

I support vegetarians, I think their lifestyle has merit.

I cannot stand those who eat meat and indict hunting. It bothers me.

Just two cents for someone who probably shares my sentiment. Great post.

Holly Heyser said...

Bobby, please come back and let me know what you think of it once you've read the book.

Josh: Knowing what I'm looking for, got any books to recommend? I can withstand something fairly academic, because I have a high level of interest in this.

R.Hurd: Thanks for chiming in!

Bobby Nations said...


There is another way to view Cain and Abel's sacrifices. In the later laws given to the Israelites, there are many instances where God calls for sacrifice of grains and other foodstuffs, so, I don't see a bias against farmers as such. Rather, Genesis 4:3-4 seems to indicate that while Cain brought some of the fruits of his labor, Abel brought the very best fruits of his. So, it appears that the mistake Cain made was to offer something less than his best. This reading is consistent with later admonitions to always bring the best or the first fruits of your labors, and there are many examples of the Lord chastising Israelites for bringing substandard animals (or grains) to the altar.

Please don't take this the wrong way, but farming or ranching for a living is hardly a sedentary activity even today with so many mechanized tools to help with the laborious bits. Much less doing so 2000 years ago with only animals to pull the plow. It's not for nothing that God punished Adam to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.


Too much stalking, not enough reading, and as a result, I'm only on about page 30 or so. In other news, there's squirrel on the menu for tomorrow :-). I'll withhold opinions until the end. Not to horn in on your conversation with Josh, but what issues in particular are you studying? I can probably recommend some books that help to understand the Eden story as told in the Christian and Jewish scriptures.

I too am loving this conversation! Though, I promise to restrain the length of my comments in the future ;^)

Josh said...

Mr. Nations, though I've never heard the interpretation that Cain's sacrifice was of lesser quality than Abel's, I'm okay with it as an interpretation. Usually, the sacrifices that don't meet God's muster (Biblically) are due to lack of faith and sincerity (mostly faith). In denying Cain's sacrifice, God still left open the opportunity to do good by not succumbing to his envy. Cain killed Abel (whose name probably comes from the word for shepherd), was banished, and founded the first city (another reason why I believe there is a whole "nomad vs. urban" thing going on here).

Of course, when I attempt to interpret stories in the Bible, I don't mean to profess any real authority. I remember Job, and know that I know so little. I also don't pretend that there can't be more than one lesson learned per story.

Holly, I'll get back to you with suggestions for books. I'll have to dust off some stuff, which will be quite a nice way to ring in the New Year!

Holly Heyser said...

Bobby, don't apologize for lengthy comments - this is one of those posts that I really write at least 50 percent for the conversation that follows. Of course, due to my upbringing, you may lose me at times. But that's OK - I'm always listening and trying to learn.

As for books, I'm looking for any examination of any and all creation myths, Judeo-Christian or otherwise. I'll take any suggestions you and Josh have to offer.

Congrats on the squirrel - I love squirrel and haven't had it for ages!

Kat said...

Holly, that was a great review. Thanks for reminding me of this great book.

I was a bit surprised to hear this was big with the vegans. I remember reading this book about five years ago and the thing that stuck with me was the arrogance of man to think that all of the Earth was created just for us and that gave us the right to do whatever we pleased. This book reinforced the growing feeling I had that we are not separate from the Earth and we need to readjust our thinking on how we treat our natural resources.

But at no point did I read this and think that I shouldn't eat meat.

Holly Heyser said...

Yeah, one of the things I like about the book is the notion of equality among living things - not the vegetarian/vegan/human-ideals equality in which everything has the unconditional right to not be killed, but the kind of equality that says, "We all become food eventually - we all deserve the same shot at living."

When I was researching this blog post I came across a review in which the reviewer said he'd joined an Ishmael email list and quickly abandoned it when s/he realized if was filled with people who saw Ishmael as "New Age guru telling us to eat a vegetarian diet and live simply."

Guess that goes to show you that people read into books what they want to read - which may be the case with me here, and which is often the case with some of our great religious texts.

Bobby Nations said...


Well, I'm sorry to say that I won't be finishing this book. It's simply becoming too tedious. I did make it a little over half-way through it before giving up.

Ignoring the amateurish writing style, I found it really hard going given that I disagree with just about every basic premise offered by the author. Then, I finally reached the crescendo of logic only to find that Quinn is a Malthusian at heart. Sigh.

I do apologize, but I didn't like the book. I hate to dump on your happiness, so I'll just leave it at that unless you want all of the buzz-kill.


Holly Heyser said...

Bobby, don't apologize. Like I said in the original post - this is a book people love or hate. I'd be interested to hear your further thoughts on it - I can deal with buzz-kill :-)