What we read: The Soul of an Octopus

Eight thumbs up.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

Sy Montgomery

Atria books: 2015

272 pages

At different bookstores, I gazed at this book cover and told myself I didn't need another book to read. Nevertheless, I bought this book down in Punta Gorda and promptly devoured it — as quickly as my schedule allows for devouring. I'll admit, I'm a tad octopus-centric, with various octopus-related ephemera in my house, but even if you aren't, I found, this book has a gentle way of sucking you in to its pages and making you want to know more.

Expect some narrative and some science and some sadness (octopuses don't live as long as, say, a cat) but Sy Montgomery does a phenomenal job of mixing science with well-theorized conjecture about these complex animals. I now have a great deal of facts about octopuses — handy things, like "octopi" is never correct because you can't mix Greek and Latin etymology, that they're color blind but can change color, and the females have estrogen (I don't even want to picture the mood swings).

Perhaps part of the reason this book is eminently readable is that Montgomery also writes children's books. That's not to say the text is simplistic; rather, she's able to write to a lay audience, and do so with skill and craft. At no point does she set you adrift in a sea of scientific language or rain jargon down upon you. She's written an easy, compelling book about octopuses, based on her personal experiences and interactions.

I don't typically enjoy the anthropomorphization of animals — dolphins aren't "happy" because they have genetically set smiles; dogs aren't "smiling" when they pull back their lips. However, I do believe animals have souls and Montgomery makes a valid case for octopus having emotions not unlike humans (as well as abstract reasoning capabilities).

There's also almost enough of her in the book. When an octopus dies — and they do die, make no mistake about that, this is not a "happily ever after" type of book — I do wish she allowed readers a deeper insight into how profoundly it affected her, because one gets the sense she isn't revealing how much it impacted her.

The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2015 (Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me won), a nomination richly deserved. It's a pleasure to read a book dealing with science written in a way so as to engage people (like me) who never took a second year of biology.

Email Cathy here.

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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