The Soul of an Octopus: Book Review

The Soul of an Octopus
by Sy Montgomery
I got this one for my wife, for two reasons: first because we both read and loved Montgomery’s book The Good Good Pig, and second because she loves octopuses. (By the way: Montgomery makes this clear in the first pages, that the correct plural is not “octopi;” the word “octopus” is from the Greek, which doesn’t pluralize -us ending words with -i. That’s a Latin plural. The correct English plural is octopuses. The correct Greek plural, used only by painfully awkward British nerds, is “octopodes.” But we’re not talking about that. Watch this if you want more word-nerdery.) How much does she love octopuses? You tell me.

(Oh yeah — she also likes doll heads. This book isn’t about that, though.)
So I got her the book, she read it, loved it. And I put it on my To Be Read shelf so I could read it, too. And now I have. And here’s what I found out:

I don’t love octopuses.

I don’t know why. I have something of a fear of the ocean, as I am afraid of drowning; I didn’t much like reading about the octopus’s strength, how one could easily pull a human into its tank, how one two-inch sucker could lift and hold 20 pounds or so, and the average octopus has about 1600 suckers. I admit I don’t really like slime, and there is quite a bit of slime involved with octopuses. I don’t much like the idea of being tasted, and the octopus’s entire skin is a sensitive tasting/smelling organ. So there was quite a bit of creepiness in the book for me, which tended to reduce the enchantment of it, an enchantment that is obviously shared by my wife, and by the author, and by the other people who go through this octopus journey with Montgomery, mostly biologists and volunteers at the New England Aquarium, where Montgomery met and made friends with several octopuses over several years.

Now: I do find cephalopods fascinating. I am amazed by their intelligence and by their multifarious abilities — octopuses can camouflage, can change shape and color and texture in less than a second; they have these remarkable arms with remarkable suckers; they can squirt ink; they can squirt water as either a weapon or as a means of locomotion; their bite is venomous. They can squeeze through any space that can fit their beak, the only hard thing in their bodies. Octopuses are badass and incredibly interesting because of it. So in terms of the science aspect of this popular science memoir, it was great; Montgomery writes well, and obviously knows her stuff, and the information was interesting. The parts about the idea of consciousness, and how an octopus may have an intelligence no less than our own, but totally different from our own, were fascinating to me. (I want to write a story now about an ancient octopus civilization at the bottom of the ocean. Except Lovecraft beat me to it. Hey — maybe he’s why I don’t like octopuses.)

But when Montgomery waxes rhapsodic about the softness of an octopus’s head, or the peace and beauty of time spent communing with an octopus while its tentacles wrap around your arms — nope. Gave me the shivers.

If you, like my wife, love the octopuses, then get this book and read and enjoy it. If you find octopuses interesting and they don’t make you feel all squirmy, then go ahead and read it; you’ll learn a lot. (There is also a lot of information about fish, about aquariums, about raising sea cratures, about keeping them in captivity, and about scuba diving. Oh — and about octopus sex.) If eight-legged sucker-wielding boneless deep-sea creatures make your eyes wide and your mouth small, then go read The Good Good Pig.

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