Octopuses (or octopodes, but never octopi) are fascinating and beautiful creatures, perhaps the most intelligent and most alien of all the other species on the planet. They taste with their skin and think with their arms. How could you not be entralled by them?
The Soul of an Octopus is Sy Montgomery’s account of her own fascination with the creatures. It’s also an exploration of how intelligent an octopus actually is, and the extent to which we can form meaningful relationships with them.
The book is loosely structured around the various octopuses that the author has met, from initial tentative acquaintance to eventual friendship. During the course of the book, she becomes a frequent visitor at an aquarium and takes up scuba diving, observing octopuses in their natural habitat. You get to see her evolving interest and fascination in the creatures she meets, and there’s very little that’s more interesting than riding in someone’s head while they talk about their passions.
This book is compelling and thoughtful. It’s not a scientific treatise, and it doesn’t pretend to be – if you read it looking for hard facts on exactly how an octopus thinks, or objective measures of intelligence, you will be disappointed. What you’ll find is conjecture – an attempt to understand alien intellects, theories about how an octopus might view the world. This book does not have all the answers, but it raises fascinating questions and explores what those answers might be.
The Soul of an Octopus is surprisingly human. Sy Montgomery’s respect for the animals (not just octopuses, but eels and fish and turtles (oh my!)) and people she meets is clear and genuine. The New Statesman compares the book to H is for Hawk, and the two are similar. They’re both about people almost as much as they are about the animals, and they’re both about reaching a slow and deep understanding of something very different and very free.
I don’t have much to say about this book, really, that isn’t covered in a very short summary: it’s a book about a naturalist who meets octopuses and talks about why they are interesting. They are interesting, and she talks about them in a compelling way. I would recommend this book.