Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: “The Soul of an Octopus”

MEG SMITH ’21

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The octopus is a bizarre, mysterious creature that evokes both extreme awe and terror. Its strength, agility, and cunning, both physical and behavioral, have earned it a reputation of intelligence and power. Sy Montgomery’s highly-acclaimed The Soul of an Octopus sheds light on the curious world of these beautiful creatures and the people who love them.
Montgomery is a writer and naturalist by trade. She writes with a sophisticated yet colloquial style that makes the reader forget that they are reading non-fiction: the passages about the biology of octopuses feel like character development for the four individual octopuses she observes, not dry scientific prose. She articulates the presence of personality, the bizarre physiology, and the varied ecology of octopuses in a way that does not feel like a transfer of factual data, but rather a loving and passionate conversation about her extensive observations and discoveries as a lifelong learner.
I felt Montgomery’s excitement as she got to learn more about Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma as individual beings. I laughed when they drenched her compatriots at the aquarium with saltwater. I felt her amazement when she realized that the chemoreceptors on octopus tentacles allowed them to “taste” her physical pain, her coworker’s nicotine, a teenage intern’s new medication. I cried when she had to say her final goodbyes to a beautiful individual.
Modern science has helped enlighten the way we see animals, especially those with as bizarre neurological and physiological arrangements as octopuses. In this book, Montgomery helps translate these new discoveries to a wider audience. She discusses human behavior and octopus personality with equal love and amazement, and her book leaves one with a profound and humanistic sense of appreciation for these remarkable creatures.

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