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Transcript of Daniel Quinn Discussing Ishmael on Oprah Winfrey Show

Contributed by a member of the New York B Network.

c 1996 Harpo Productions, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

WINFREY: Thank you. Well, next, the story of a gorilla--yes, a gorilla who's a teacher with a message so powerful that thousands of people say they are changing the way they live their lives because of a gorilla. It certainly has opened my eyes, which is why I wanted to have a dinner conversation with the author. That's next.

But first, here's what some people are saying about this unusual book about the gorilla called Ishmael.

Unidentified Woman #1: All of a sudden, you realize that the teacher in the story is--is--is an animal, is a gorilla, and that--I really had to contemplate.

Unidentified Man: He's not preaching at you. He's en--he's enlightening you.

Unidentified Woman #2: After reading the book, I became more focused on the power of the individual to have a global effect, so kind of a--think globally and act individually.


WINFREY: So the question is, have you ever thought about how fascinating it would be to have dinner with certain people who have insights that maybe you never thought about? Well, because I love to read, I've invited three authors whose books have such powerful messages, I wanted to share them with you all.

When I mentioned I was reading "Ishmael," the story of a gorilla who was a teacher, a lot of my friends thought I was a little crazy, but the message in the book is very powerful. And there are thousands of other people who have read it, and they say that it's changing the way they see the world and also live their lives. It certainly opened my eyes. So meet the author of "Ishmael," Daniel Quinn.

It's so hard, though, Daniel. I read this book. First, a friend told me to read it, and then I said, `What's it about?' and I know you guys will feel the same. I said, `What's it about?' and he said, `Well, it's about this gorilla who knows how to save the world and is out to save the world and has some advice to this guy.' And so I go, `I don't want to read a book about no gorilla.' And then just--it just so happened that, late this fall, somebody left the book on my doorstep, which I thought, `It's a sign. I need to read the book.' How do you explain to people what is this about?

Mr. QUINN: The easiest way to explain it is not to say what it is, but what it does. It's like you don't care what's in the medicine, you want to know what it does for you.


Mr. QUINN: And what "Ishmael" does i--what--what readers tell me that it does for them is that it's changed the way they see the world. And I hear this 20 times a week from people who write to me and say that the world will never look the same to them again. "Ishmael" was written to chan--give people a new vision of our place on this planet.


Mr. QUINN: And it is the vision of Ishmael, who is the gorilla, who is a spokesman for the--the non-human community of life on this planet.

WINFREY: One of the--the big issues that is discussed in the book is that we are either a people who are takers or people who are leavers. And you say--one of the things that you point out in the book is that we human beings, for the most part--the culture of human beings are the only animals on the planet who respond in such a way that we are willing to take and take and take and take and not leave.

Mr. QUINN: But for three million years, after all, we did live on this planet no differently from any other creatures, and we lived very successfully and did no harm, lived harmlessly on the--i--in the world. And it was only about 10,000 years ago that we adopted a very peculiar lifestyle which basically is based on the idea that the entire world belongs to us...

WINFREY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. QUINN: human beings and that we can do any damn thing we please with it. And this was a very new idea, and it's not found--was not found before and it was not found anywhere else in the world among the people that I call leavers. It was--is peculiar to our culture.

WINFREY: And how dangerous is this? You say that y--hundreds of years from now, children will look back on our society and call us monsters. Why?

Mr. QUINN: I think so. Yeah, because we're g--we're--we continue to take and take and take and consume and consume and consume everything in sight. And in 100 years, if--if there are still people around to think about it, we're going to look back and say, `My God, these were terribly greedy people. What kind of people were they? They were hard to understand, who had no thought for us, for the future of--of the human race.'

WINFREY: How are we monsters? In what ways are we devouring the world?

Mr. QUINN: We're--we're eating far more than our share of resources for all time, resources that can never be replaced. We are--we're exhausting the water tables. We're--we're--we're killing off wildlife. We're destroying--it's estimated a--about 50--40 or 50 species a day disappear as a result of--of our encroachments and, of course, each one of them is irreplaceable. And that number is probably--will probably go up as our population continues to rise.

WINFREY: That may sound a little grim for a lot of you, but "Ishmael" is also about hope. And when we come back, Daniel Quinn tells us how we as individuals can begin to change the world one person at a time. But first, "Ishmael" is being used in a lot of classrooms coast to coast, in grade schools and in universities. Here's what a few students had to say about the theory of leavers and takers.

Unidentified Student #1: I think most people are takers because just living in the civilization that humans have built today, you're--you're taking so much. Like you're taking the clean air every time you drive your car. You're polluting the air and you're making it worse for someone else.

Unidentified Student #2: People usually do things, you know, that'll benefit for themselves, and we need to slow down and look at what we've done to the world.


Unidentified Student #3: `Our civilization is going to crash like an early model of a plane. The man in it who is flying thinks nothing is going to pull him down. He thinks his plane ca--can keep flying. He just has to pedal faster. But slowly and slowly, the wing comes closer and closer to the ground. It'll crash just like civilization. We think our civilization will just keep flying, but it's going to crash very soon, and we aren't doing anything about it.'

WINFREY: But Daniel Quinn says that people are starting to do something about it. After reading the book, many people say that they now see their roles as individuals in the world. So I asked Daniel if there was a way he believed each of us could begin to change the world.

Mr. QUINN: What you do is--is--it isn't--it isn't one thing for everybody.


Mr. QUINN: It is, where--where are you? If you're a teacher, of course, here is what you do. You teach your kids this. If--if you are a business person, what is your business? How is your im--bus--your business impacting the world? How can you change its impact on the world? You have to look at it yourself. People have told me what they--what they feel and they've done what I couldn't even have dreamed of doing, which was they felt that after reading "Ishmael," what they've done is to spread among themselves a new vision, which is--that was what I hoped--that was what I--why I--why I wrote the book.

WINFREY: Again, one of the things that you say is that we think evolution stopped with us. Can you explain to the audience why that is so wrong.

Mr. QUINN: It's understandable that we would have--have come to think that we were the--the end point of creation, but...

WINFREY: Because we can do so much.

Mr. QUINN: Yeah. And I--I...

WINFREY: That we're the thinking beings. We are the thinking beings. Mr. QUINN: Yeah.

WINFREY: You--we've--we've got that going for us.

Mr. QUINN: Yeah. Yeah. I admire what we've done very much. I--I love--I don't hate technology. I don't hate our civilization at all. But the--the controlling force right now is that everyone in the world has to live this way, and that's what's--what's wicked. In our particular culture, we reward drive and aggression and...

WINFREY: Ambition.

Mr. QUINN: ...ambition, yeah.

WINFREY: Competition--all of that.

Mr. QUINN: Yeah, competitiveness and all of those--those good things an--which is fine. I have nothing wo--wo--but a lot of people are not turned on by that, and they don't care. They don't care about money. They don't care about success. And so they look at the world and say, `Well, where do I belong here?'


Mr. QUINN: You know, we've got, you know, a tremendous amount of energy, human energy, that is really going to waste, that we are wasting. We need to open up the world so that people have some alternatives.

WINFREY: No room for diversification.

Mr. QUINN: Right.

WINFREY: No room for--that's why we have such a major race problem in this country, you think perhaps?

Mr. QUINN: That's certainly part of it.

WINFREY: Certainly part of it, is because people want you to be like me, and if you're not like me, then there's something wrong with you. Mr. QUINN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

WINFREY: How do we begin to change that?

Mr. QUINN: In my own view, give people a new vision. Once people have a new vision, they will begin to do new things.

WINFREY: What I'm hoping is we can all be open to a new kind of vision that will show us how we, each of us, fits into this world and helps each of us to realize that it really is up to us to start changing it. Well, "Ishmael" really has opened our eyes to see the world differently, mine especially. We'll be right back.


WINFREY: What I'm hoping is that the messages in these books can make just a bit of difference in your life like they have in mine. Think about, if you will, honoring the difficult, keeping a gratitude journal and creating a life of `simple abundance' for yourself, and being more of a leaver than a taker in the world. I think it can all make a difference.

Learn more about Daniel Quinn's visit to the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Learn more about how Ishmael and Daniel Quinn are showing up on television.

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