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Daniel Quinn – If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways

January 9, 2008

5. If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways by Daniel Quinn (2007)

Length: 198 pages

Genre: Non-fiction; Sociology

Started: 09 January 2008
Finished: 09 January 2008

Summary: For those of you reading this review who are unfamiliar with Quinn’s work, I’d recommend starting with Ishmael or Story of B. I can, without hesitation or hyperbole, say that these books are the most important books I’ve ever read. If you’re not ready to commit to a reading a book, read either or both of the speeches linked below. If you can’t commit that far, you’ll have to do with my horribly inadequate summary: Currently, there are six billion people on the planet, and although we’re supposed rational, we’re living in a way that is systematically destroying the very support of human life. Quinn attempts to get to the bottom of why this is the case, and points out that if we as a species are going to survive the next few hundred years, we’re going to have to live differently… and that means we’re going to have to start thinking differently about who we are as a culture, and as a species, and as a participant of life on this planet. This book is a way of understanding what exactly it means to think differently.

It’s set up as a transcript of a four-day dialogue between Daniel Quinn and one of his readers. The fundamental question they set out to answer is “How do you do what you do?”; that is, what does it mean to see the world from a Daniel Quinn-ian perspective, and how can the rest of us go about achieving that perspective? In achieving that, it covers a lot of ground familiar from Quinn’s other work, but the focus is not so much on the answers, but rather on the method of discovering those answers for yourself. It’s formatted so that when Quinn tells Elaine to take a break and think about things, the reader can also set the book aside for a moment and attempt to think through the problem on their own – although of course we’re denied feedback when our answer differs from Elaine’s. This book also includes the text of two of Quinn’s speeches, The New Renaissance and Our Religions, which have never before been published, but are available on the web.

Review: The preface to this book states that “the reading of [Quinn’s] other books is not in any way a prerequisite to reading this one.” I have to disagree. Well, I do think that this work would probably be understandable to readers unfamiliar with Quinn’s oeuvre, although they’d miss a lot of the subtleties. He references a lot of topics – tribalism, animalism, Takers and Leavers, Mother Culture, the Gebusi of New Guinea, the Great Forgetting – and more-or-less takes it for granted that the reader will understand what he means with minimal explanation. His point may come across to new readers, but the full impact of that point may not. However, whether or not a new reader could understand this book is immaterial, since I can’t really see why someone who is not familiar with Quinn’s work would want to read a book that explains how Quinn thinks.

The book itself is excellent at accomplishing its twin goals – of not only explaining how Quinn thinks, but also in giving those of us who have read the rest of his books a means of checking how “changed” our minds really are – if we’re just repeating Quinn’s answers, or if we’ve absorbed the message enough to generate new answers on our own. Ideally, we’d all get to sit down with Daniel for a couple of days and chat… but failing that, this book is a good substitute. 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: For newcomers to Quinn, don’t start here. For Quinn devotees (if you are B – or think you are) then this book is definitely worthwhile, a quick-reading but deceptively simple kick in the butt that makes you really think about how you think, and the things that Culture tells us that you automatically take for granted.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Vocab:

  • p. 68-9: “Okay. But I’m not sure I’d recognize a tendentious statement if I saw one.” – having or showing a definite tendency, bias, or purpose
  • p. 90: “The Pelagian argument is still there, even though the church finally pronounced against it.” – the belief that original sin did not taint human nature (which, being created from God, was divine), and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid.
  • p. 123: “Most exegetes treat ‘the Knowledge of Good and Evil’ as sort of a placeholder.“; p. 187: “This investigation into the stories in Genesis was not, for me, an exercise in biblical exegesis.” – critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, esp. of the Bible.
  • p. 171: “Similarly, it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that heavy objects fall to earth faster than light objects – and this was affirmed by another towering authority, the polymath genius Aristotle.” – a person of great learning in several fields of study
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