You want all octopus all the time? Then this is the book for you, my friend! The Soul of an Octopus, written by Sy Montgomery, is an exploration of the beautiful, intelligent, mischievous octopus (plural is not octopi, as I once thought, but octopuses). The subtitle of the book is “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness,” highlighting that through understanding the octopus, we can begin to understand animal consciousness.
The octopus is one of the world’s most amazing, and sensitive, creatures. The author makes the acquaintance of individual octopuses, each with their own personality and beauty. Some octopus facts, just because: an octopus can get inside incredibly tiny spaces (one escapes through a 1-inch by 2-inch space), they tend to be extremely curious, depending on the size of their suction cups, one cup can lift as much as 30 lbs or more, they change colors, including when they show excitement or calm, most of their neurons are in their arms, they can be crafty (they are notorious escape artists in aquariums), and are extremely strong, able to pull something many times greater than their body weight. They are loners, but often quite social with their human caretakers. They also have distinct personalities. Some are calm, others feisty. Some shy, others very social.
One of the things I didn’t like about the book is the author is fairly insufferable. She radically anthropomorphizes the octopuses, cooing in delight, feeling rejected if they don’t come over to or recognize her, demanding to touch them at all times, and just generally being somewhat cloying. Which is not to say she’s written a boring or suspect book. I read in her little bio on the back of the book that she also writes nonfiction for children, so that may be where some of her effusiveness derives. And it’s entirely possible that I’m just an ex-New York curmudgeon who doesn’t appreciate whimsy.
I confess I found it distressing to see these remarkable beings captured and brought to aquariums. The author almost never addresses this issue, instead delighting in her ability to interact in close quarters with the octopuses. If octopuses are intelligent, curious creatures, why do they have to be trapped in aquariums? Some are raised in captivity, of course, but the book describes octopuses being taken from the wild and confined to tanks where they often try to escape. I read the following passage and initially thought it amusing, but on a second read it was less so:
Those who work with octopuses report seeing things that, according to the way we’ve learned the world normally works, should not be happening.
Such was the day Alexa Warburton found herself chasing a fist-size octopus as it ran across the floor.
Yes, ran. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” she said. “It’s so weird.”
One of the octopuses with who the author has an especially close relationship dies after escaping new housing. It’s horribly sad and makes you think about confining such magnificent creatures. Which is not to say that their caretakers are anything but passionate and mindful. They honestly love the octopuses and are devastated when one dies (octopuses in general tend to die relatively young). I also know conservation efforts play an important part and octopuses often live safer, longer lives in captivity. I just couldn’t help but feel sad for the octopuses sometimes.
Even with its flaws, though, this is a captivating book. I’m not sure it makes any serious headway regarding understanding animal consciousness, but it certainly makes the case that the octopus is a fascinating, intelligent creature that has the capability to interact with its world in a unique and deliberate way.