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Is anything quite so disappointing as picking up a book that you fully expect to be a five-star read and being met with something you can only generously call mediocre? I was so excited at the prospect of learning about octopuses, those wonderful invertebrates, that I sat down with my beloved book darts, certain that I’d want to permanently tag many interesting passages. Now a few golden embellishments stare up at me from the pages, questioning me as to whether I will doom them to remain pressed in a book I’m unlikely to reference frequently.
The Soul of an Octopus follows author Sy Montgomery’s quest to get to know octopuses. She does this largely by spending time with the octopus keepers and their charges at the New England Aquarium, with a side trip diving in the Caribbean to see their wild brethren. Montgomery is effusive in her enthusiasm for octopuses and describes how she weeps tears of joy the first time she sees one in the wild. And why shouldn’t she? Octopuses are amazing creatures, invertebrates with three hearts and nine brains who can change color in response to mood or to camouflage themselves. They are renowned escape artists with a decentralized nervous system unlike anything we know of in the vertebrate world.
Alas, having a fascinating topic doesn’t automatically make for a fascinating book. At times, it seems little more than an exercise in self indulgence as the author celebrates her good fortune at being allowed to regularly go behind-the-scenes of the Aquarium to pet their resident octopuses. I don’t blame her for being excited; I do blame her for taking a topic as engrossing and complex as octopus behavior and turning it into her own personal diary. I’m baffled that, given the complicated subject matter, the author felt the need to pad this book up with irrelevant details, such as the 30 pages she spends describing her own SCUBA training (This may come as a shock, but I don’t care how many times you tried to clear your ears, Sy). She also spends a great deal of time describing the volunteers and keepers at the New England Aquarium. Nothing is inherently wrong with that; it could be interesting and heartfelt, connecting with these people who connect with the octopus. Instead, these passages read more like extended commercial breaks that happen while you are waiting for the star performer to return.
I have no doubt of the author’s good intention, but even the subtitle, A Surprsing Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, is rather a mystery to me. If she explored consciousness, other than to suggest that yes, octopuses do indeed have them, I missed it.
My biggest problem with this book, though, is the casual way the author glosses over the reality of keeping captive animals. I volunteer at a Zoo, so obviously I support situations in which animals are raised in captivity. I do, however, believe it’s part of a complex discussion and understand concerns that people may have. The first time Montgomery mentions that the Aquarium’s octopus was “wild caught,” I blinked. When the keepers struggled to find a larger space for an octopus that was outgrowing her tank, I became uncomfortable. When an octopus died and the aquarium “ordered another one,” I became ill. Are there legitimate and ethical reasons for the Aquarium to hire someone to capture a wild octopus and bring it to live in New England? Maybe, but I wouldn’t know, because the author skates over the controversy. At one point she asks the octopus wrangler whether he has any misgivings about this, and he simply says no, because the octopus is an ambassador for his species. That’s it. One sentence on the ethics of capturing what is described as a highly intelligent and sensitive animal. As I said, I’m inclined to sympathize with the intentions behind the choice, and I have no doubt that the keepers and administration of the aquarium love the animals and do their best by them. And I was horrified.
I did learn a few neat things about octopuses, which is why I’m giving it 2 stars instead of 1 (3 stars for the first half, 1 star for the second half). Interesting tidbits include:
- The correct plural of octopus is not octopi, since you can’t put a Latin i on the end of a word derived from Greek.
- A male giant Pacific octopus, the largest of the octopus species, has suckers that are 3-inches in diameter and that can lift 30 pounds each. He has 1600 of them on his tentacles.
- Octopus blood is blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen.
- An octopus has 300 million neurons. The pond snail, a fellow mollusk, only has about 11,000.
- An octopus “penis” is on the tip of one of its tentacles.
- Octopuses have a hormone similar to oxytocin (the “cuddle hormone), which is called cephalatocin.
So, do you want to learn a bit about octopuses without reading this book, which I essentially just told you not to do? Watch My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. At 90 minutes long, this film is absolutely mesmerizing. You will learn the beauty, majesty, and intelligence of these incredible creatures. Watch it tonight, thank me tomorrow.