The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
Published in: 2015
National Book Award Finalist
Rating: 4 stars + a favorite
Reviewed by Jen
Find it/buy it here: The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus is part memoir and part exposé on the world of octopuses. It was nominated for the National Book Award last year although it lost out to Coates’ Between the World and Me. When I first heard about the book, I was intrigued. I love learning about animals and the only thing I knew about octopuses was that they were considered incredibly intelligent.
Who knew that octopuses could be so interesting ― enough so that a whole book about them would fascinate me? Montgomery’s book was a pleasure. I don’t typically read a lot of nonfiction but this book drew me in and made me fall in love with a creature I had previously found quite repulsive. The book is filled with a mix of scientific facts about octopuses and the author’s emotional reactions to them.
Much of the book is based on the author’s experience interacting with a variety of octopuses behind the scenes at the New England Aquarium, although she also pulls in anecdotes from the Seattle Aquarium’s Octopus blind date night (yes, they actually do this and you can watch a video here), and scuba diving in Polynesian waters.
The book is incredibly informative and surprisingly touching. The author describes a plethora of people who have been really touched by their interactions with these smart and personable creatures. Several adolescents seem particularly affected by their interactions with the New England Aquarium octopuses and one girl even claims that her interactions saved her from spiraling into a dark depression after a friend’s suicide.
This book will be a favorite for me but I only gave it 4 stars because I was bothered by two things. First, the author often attributes human emotions, intentions, and thoughts to these octopuses. She does so in a way that reflects her interpretation of their behavior but I found it to be an irritating contrast to the scientific data she presented. This isn’t to say that I don’t believe octopus have such feelings, but rather I don’t believe we can interpret them based on our own thoughts. To be fair, Montgomery doesn’t do this too much but, when she does, it stands out in a bad way.
Second, and most problematic, was that there is one chapter dedicated to her consideration of buying an octopus as a pet. It is hard for me to understand how someone who is so clearly infatuated with a wild animal, would think it appropriate to contribute to a trade that captures them and sells them for personal amusement. If you truly believe that octopuses have unique personalities and use their intelligence to escape their small containers, then how could you possibly think it ethically acceptable to keep one inside your home?
Normally, these two drawbacks would have prevented me from enjoying the book, yet I was still loved it. Any book that is able to move me from being repulsed to wanting to touch an octopus is pretty powerful. Some of the anecdotes brought tears to my eyes and I can honestly say that I will never be able to order octopus at a restaurant again.
Want to try it for yourself? You can find it your copy here: The Soul of an Octopus
We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t read it, does it interest you?