Sy Montgomery's popular 2011 Orion magazine piece, "Deep Intellect", about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death, went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. Since then Sy has practiced true immersion journalism, from New England aquarium tanks to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico, pursuing these wild, solitary shape-shifters.
Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think?
The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques. Montgomery chronicles this growing appreciation of the octopus, but also tells a love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.
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A memoir more than science nonfiction
This book is more a memoir including some facts and many subjective observations about octopuses than it is a scientific look at octopuses. As such it's an interesting memoir and a fascinating picture of the personalities of a number of different octopuses that the author meets, as well as several aquarium staff members. It certainly highlighted how intelligent these creatures are, how little we still know about them, and it certainly made me want to go visit some octopuses in an aquarium.
However, if you're looking for any depth of scientific fact or even any depth of philosophical discussion, the book is rather lacking in this department. The author seems to spend some time justifying to herself that it's ok to keep octopuses in captivity -- even when they may occasionally tragically die accidentally -- without really examining the details of both sides of the argument. It feels as if the book COULD have been much more than just a memoir, so it's disappointing in that sense. And if you really don't care about the personal thoughts and philosophizing of the author then you'll probably find it annoying. But, if you're interested in octopuses, stories about them, and random tidbits of science and information, then you may still enjoy this book. Certainly, the more people become interested in learning more about these creatures, the better; so go pick up the book if you think you might like to learn more.
Eight legs and so much more!
This is a really beautiful book. Sy definitely did her homework when it comes to the hard science, but her natural curiosity and passion for understanding the natural world comes through in the most joyfully contagious way. I admire her for writing from both persecutive so deftly! She is not afraid to put herself in the picture and by proxy the reader. Her emotions are heartfelt, but also not left unexamined. Even when anthropomorphizing the Octopus she takes the time to explore and also explain how those sentiments are both helpful and harmful at times.
I don't think that I have read any other naturalist writing that exactly compares to this book, but the first thing that comes to mind would be Michael Pollan's book Botany of Desire. However I think that the qualities that make me want to compare these two books is the attempt at seeing life from the perspective of the subject. That at the natural passion of the writers.
I personally love when the authors read their work, because so often you can hear the emotion in their voices as they retell the stories that they have written.
There were actually a few, but I feel like I shouldn't spill the beans here. I experienced both swells of joy/awe and deep sadness. There were a couple times in the book when I was brought close to tears.
This book is definitely worth the read! Especially if you are a naturalist at heart!