EDITOR'S NOTE: In some editions, a headline on a Sept. 2 A-section article, about the gunman in the hostage-taking at Discovery Communications headquarters apparently drawing inspiration from the novel "My Ishmael," by Daniel Quinn, improperly and inaccurately characterized that book. The headline read: "Author disowns gunman's interpretation of seditious novel." It should have read: "Author disowns gunman's seditious interpretation of novel." Headlines on news stories in The Washington Post should separate fact from opinion. This one, inadvertently, did not.
Author disowns gunman's interpretation of provocative novel
Thursday, September 2, 2010
The gunman who took hostages at Discovery Communications' headquarters in Silver Spring was apparently inspired by the author of a popular series about a telepathic ape who tries to save humankind from problems such as overpopulation, but the writer said Wednesday that he is baffled by James J. Lee's interpretation of his book.
Daniel Quinn, 75, wrote a four-book series including "My Ishmael," the 1997 novel Lee mentioned in the first item on his list of 11 demands. In an online manifesto, Lee said Discovery Channel "must" run daily, prime-time shows "based on" a six-page passage of the novel in which Ishmael and his 12-year-old apprentice discuss the Industrial Revolution and why humans were so creative and resourceful during that period.
The shows, Lee wrote, would focus on "solutions to save the planet . . . done in the same way as the Industrial Revolution was done, by people building on each other's inventive ideas. Focus must be given on how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children since those new additions continue pollution and are pollution."
Quinn, who worked in publishing before a literary career that includes more than a dozen books, sounded stunned as he spoke from his home in Houston. As calls from reporters came in, he re-read the pages of his book. He said he was in a physical therapy session when he heard of the hostage-taking and Lee's reference to "My Ishmael."
Quinn's books are extremely popular, if difficult to categorize. They have been translated into 25 languages and are taught in a wide range of courses including English, philosophy and anthropology. Quinn said the series aims to "teach" readers to question what they've been told about human history and human nature.
He criticized the typical school system that "sends children to a prison and isolates them from their parents, as though before that, children didn't have educations. They had perfect educations by . . . being with their parents all the time."
Hesitant to characterize his own goals, Quinn said, "I'm just trying to get people to think."
Although Quinn does write about the "race between food production and population growth," he said Lee "had become a fanatic" and warped his beliefs and words. Quinn said, "I've never said anything remotely like" what Lee said about preventing the birth of children. "He's exaggerated what I've said."
In the passage Lee mentions, Ishmael explains to 12-year-old Julie how people can draw inspiration from the basic creativity that human beings have shown throughout history. Ishmael praises "the wealth of human inventiveness that was generated by the Industrial Revolution."
"I'm not recommending its goals or its shameful features - its relentless materialism, its appalling wastefulness, its enormous appetite for irreplaceable resources," he says. "I'm recommending only its mode of operation, which released the greatest and most democratic outpouring of human creativity in human history."The biggest obstacle to this explosion of creativity, the two agree, is "the government."A minute later, someone came into the room in his house and fixed the author's television, just as the news announced that Lee had been shot. Quinn let out what sounded like a laugh of relief. "So it's all over?"
"That's what governments are there for, to keep good things from happening," Ishmael says. "But if you can't even manage to force your own presumably democratic governments to allow you to do good things for yourselves, then you probably deserve to become extinct."
Asked about the current status of the species, Quinn worried about the planet's growing population. "We're obviously in deep trouble," he said.
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.