"My Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn was an award-winning – albeit quirky – 1997 novel that had long inspired a cult following. But the book made a tragic splash into headlines yesterday when it appeared at the heart of gunman and hostage-taker James Jae Lee's angry online manifesto.
"The Discovery Channel and it's [sic] affiliate channels MUST have daily television programs at prime time slots based on Daniel Quinn's 'My Ishmael' pages 207-212 where solutions to save the planet would be done in the same way as the Industrial Revolution was done, by people building on each other's inventive ideas," Lee wrote on his SaveThePlanetProtest website.
Quinn, who is the author of 13 books and has a reputation as a renowned lecturer on environmental topics, seemed "stunned" yesterday – according to The Washington Post – to hear of Lee's use of his book.
Although he acknowledged that his books do focus on topics like the "race between food production and population growth" – a concern that appeared to have become an obsession with Lee – Quinn fully repudiated Lee's use of violence.
He told MSNBC that he would never have imagined that his books would provoke violence and death. "I wish I could understand what he's trying to do, and what he's trying to say. It's hard to connect it with my book," said Quinn.
"My Ishmael" is one book in a four-book series written by Quinn. The novels feature a telepathic ape named Ishmael who teaches human pupils about dangers – including human overpopulation – that threaten the planet. Ishmael also posits humanity's powers of invention as a possible solution to environmental dangers.
"Ishmael" – the first book in the series, which also includes "The Story of B," "My Ishmael" (the book Lee cited) and "Beyond Civilization" – won a $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award.
A review in the New York Review of Books called "Ishmael" "[a] thoughtful, fearlessly low-key novel about the role of our species on the planet ... laid out for us with an originality and a clarity that few would deny." The book also inspired a 1999 Hollywood movie called "Instinct."
Quinn's books have been translated into 25 languages and are often taught on college campuses. Quinn told The Washington Post that Lee "had become a fanatic" who warped his beliefs and words.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.