The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery is a creative nonfiction book about the many fascinating behaviors, biological facts, and ways of life of the octopus presented in the form of a memoir of the author’s time getting to meet, know, and love different octopuses. Simultaneously an exploration of consciousness— human and otherwise— a look into octopuses in general, and a touching memoir filled with both moments of exhilarating joy and deep sadness, this book is a great read for those interested in marine creatures (or those who just want to learn) who are not seeking a purely academic book. Far from the dry and mechanical feel of a textbook, this is a book full of emotion and life.
Montgomery’s writing takes the reader on a journey right there beside her, not following what she is doing but practically doing it with her. The imagery engages all five senses and fully emerges the reader in the setting of the aquarium. By the end of the book I felt as though if I went to the aquarium, especially the behind-the-scenes octopus area, I would know where everything was despite never having been there before.
The Soul of an Octopus does just as much exploration of the human mind as it does the mind of octopuses. By comparing the two side-by-side, the differences are illuminated with astonishing detail, but so are the similarities. The connection that all creatures have as residents of the Earth, whether they are human or not, vertebrates or invertebrates, swimming or flying, is undeniable, and this book seeks to highlight that and make it clear that animals really are much more like us than we usually think.
In terms of the academic integrity of the book, it is well-researched and includes many interviews with professionals in the fields that are being discussed. Octopus intelligence and behavioral studies are explained in very easy-to-understand terms. From the findings of Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute to touching conversations with aquarium volunteers, The Soul of an Octopus is the type of book that keeps the science simple but engaging, and provides names of people, organizations, and resources that make it very easy for someone who wants to learn more to find the information and do a deep dive (no pun intended).
One thing I didn’t enjoy was the section of the book in which the author learned to scuba dive in order to see octopuses in their natural habitat. While the descriptions of the dives themselves were fascinating and Montgomery perfectly encapsulated what it feels like to take those first few breaths underwater, I found the long description of the SCUBA learning process unnecessary and somewhat tedious to read through as it didn’t have much to do with octopuses at all. There were a few parts of the book that were more about the author’s life than anything else.
All in all, this was a really interesting read. I’d recommend it as long as you go into it expecting the feel of a memoir. If anyone else has read this, please share your thoughts!