Book Review for “Ishmael”


Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael. Bantam Books. DOI: The United States.

     Ishmael by Daniel Quinn takes its reader on a spiritual journey. Meet Ishmael, the namesake of this novel. Ishmael is a teacher, but not the kind you’re probably expecting; I won’t spoil any of the book’s surprises, but Ishmael is a non-traditional teacher to say the least. His subdued life has led him through deep reflections that have given him great insight into the history of the world. This novel is a journey where the reader learns to shed his or her preconceived notions about mankind

            Now, I don’t want to put down any book. I believe every book has some value or merit, even if I can’t see it. I’m sure Ishmael has brought many readers a deep and spiritual experience or helped them look at the world differently; I however, feel differently. This entire novel is a dialogue between teacher and pupil, so then it is also then safe to assume that the reader is a pupil to teacher as well. The teacher is meant to be portrayed as an enlightened, all- knowledgeable being uninhibited by biases and personal beliefs. This teacher serves not to reveal right or wrong but to help open the pupil’s eyes to what they have been missing through their own ignorance. My problem with these types of novels is the very mechanics of how this works. The teacher is supposed to be enlightened and unbiased, but I am also aware that this character was created and written by the author of the novel. Though the author himself does not physically appear in the book, I can see his personal beliefs shine through the words and teachings of the teacher. This presents a hitch in this theory; the teacher, by virtue of being created by the author, is not in fact unbiased or enlightened. He is merely conveying the author’s personal agenda in a way that is meant to persuade the reader that these beliefs are infallible. This is why I had such a hard time reading Ishmael, and this is why I have a hard time reading novels that center around teacher/pupil conversations.

     My other problem with this book is that it was presented to me as a young adolescent novel meant to be read in a middle school classroom. This is something I cannot see. Not only is the language challenging, but the concepts are challenging as well. The pages of this novel boast long and wordy explanations about life and the universe that are often tedious to follow. The teacher and pupil often appear to run in circles talking about much of the same things over and over. I myself don’t even find these arguments compelling, and I can’t imagine a middle school student enjoying it either. That’s not to say that no middle school student will ever enjoy this book; I know there are some out there that will. I just don’t think middle school age students would be the target audience of this book. I can, however, picture an older audience enjoying this selection. It also goes without saying that just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that it is not worth reading. I’m sure many people will enjoy taking this literary journey, and maybe one day in the future I will revisit this novel with a greater sense of enjoyment and appreciation.

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Filed under Adult Novels, Young Adult Novels

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