If they give you lined paper, write sideways

Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael rocked my world when I first read it as an undergrad student, seven years ago. In it, Quinn challenges the bedrock assumptions of our culture, overturns our unpoken received wisdom, and leaves us with a broad outline of how we must change our thinking if we are to continue to survive here. Two insights in particular have stuck with me over the years:

  1. We are not humanity. Many people in our culture seem unconsciously to attribute our systematic dismantling of the biosphere to “human nature.” Therefore, none of it is our fault; we simply can’t help but be destructive. This flies in the face of the evidence. Humans with every bit the cranial capacity we brag of lived perfectly sustainably for tens of thousands of years, and they continue to live that way where they are allowed to do so. It is no more human nature to be destructive than it is human nature to eat Pop Tarts.
  2. It is not possible to “live outside of nature.” The word “nature” comes close to being meaningless. Whether we live in a wigwam in the forest or in a skyscraper of steel, concrete and glass, we are utterly dependent on the exact same ecological processes. It is no more possible for us to live away from “nature” than it is for us to abstain from breathing.

But this post isn’t about Ishmael. It’s about Quinn’s newest book: If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways. This is not a novel, like Ishmael and its follow-ups. Instead, it’s little more than a transcript of a conversation between Quinn and a reader. The reader in question pursued the conversation in the hopes of getting Quinn’s ideas straight in her head, and Quinn agreed in the hope of answering a question often put to him: “Where do your ideas come from?”

The book is not long, and perhaps not deep, but it is nonetheless fascinating. In exploring questions like, “Should human rights be extended to apes?” Quinn demonstrates how he steps back from the unspoken assumptions that shape our thinking. For the question of apes, such an assumption may be that “human rights” are something we have simply by virtue of being human, when in fact they only exist because of government contracts to that effect. Many people in history and in the world today have no concept of having “rights.”

I recommend the book enthusiastically. It is a quick, entertaining read, and it will leave you questioning everything you hear when you’ve finished. (Of course, that holds only if you’re not already in the habit of questioning everything you hear. I confess that I fall into lazy thinking only too easily.) Give it a read, and let me know what you think!

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