The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness Paperback – April 5, 2016
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"Renowned author Sy Montgomery's latest gem is a must read for those who want to dissolve the human-constructed borders between "them" (other animals) and us. Surely, there are large differences among nonhuman animals and between nonhuman and human animals, but there also are many basic similarities. Connecting with other animals is part of the essential and personal process of rewilding and reconnecting with other animals, and The Soul of an Octopus is just what is needed to close the gap." -- Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional lives of Animals
"Diving deeper than Jules Verne ever dreamed, The Soul of an Octopus is a page-turning adventure that will leave you breathless. Has science ever been this deliciously hallucinatory? Boneless and beautiful, the characters here are not only big-hearted, they're multi-hearted, as well as smart, charming, affectionate...and, of course, ambidextrous. If there is a Mother Nature, her name is Sy Montgomery." -- Vicki Constantine Croke, author of Elephant Company
"In The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery immerses readers into an intriguing, seductive world just beneath the ocean waves and the lives of the creatures living within. In this beautifully written book, she brings empathy, insight, and an enchanting sense of wonderment to the bonds we inherently share with other beings—even those seeming far different from us." -- Vint Virga, DVM, The Soul of All Living Creatures
“A captivating book on an intelligence as ‘alien’ as one from outer space. And its not science fiction.” -- Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
"Can an octopus have a mind and emotions, let alone a soul? Sy Montgomery faces these questions head-on in her engaging new book as she explores the world of octopuses, making friends with several and finding heartbreak when they die. They aren't, she discovers, simply brainless invertebrates, but personable, playful, conscious beings. Montgomery's enthusiasm for animals most of us rarely see is infectious, and readers will come away with a new appreciation for what it means to be an octopus." -- Virginia Morell, author of ANIMAL WISE: How We Know Animals Think and Feel
"With apparent delight, Montgomery puts readers inside the world of these amazing creatures. A fascinating glimpse into an alien consciousness." -- Kirkus Reviews
"The Soul of an Octopus is one of those works that makes you hope we can save the planet if for no other reason than to preserve the wondrous beasts we are fortunate enough to share it with." -- Steve Lysaker, Outward Hounds
"Sy Montgomery’s joyful passion for these intelligent and fascinating creatures will have you rethinking that order of calamari.", Library Journal Editors' Spring Pick
"Sweet moments are at the heart of Montgomery's compassionate, wise and tender new book... Only a writer of her talent could make readers care about octopuses as individuals... Joins a growing body of literature that asks us to rethink our connection to nonhumans who may be more like us than we had supposed.", St. Paul Pioneer Press
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I read this book after "What a Fish Knows" which is a brilliant book, very insightful, and maybe I set the bar too high and was expecting something similar.
But what disturbed me most about this book, and the reason I gave it one star, is the prevailing misperception that people have the right to keep octopuses captive against their will, deprive them of a natural fulfilling life, even kill them, while the whole time maintaining how much they love the octopus. Here are some examples:
Sy describes Ken Wong as a "shipper" of octopuses. One octopus, later named Karma, tried to jet away from Ken in the ocean, but he caught her in his net. Taken from the ocean, Ken put Karma in a 5x5x4 foot tank. Ken says "I love them all" and has "no regrets" about capturing wild free octopuses and then subjecting them to a risky transport (which could kill some of them) followed by a solitary life in a small prison. He justifies it by saying that the captive octopus will live a "long, good life." How many people would choose to live 100 years in prison instead of 80 years as a free human being? Not me. This attitude of being insensitive to the autonomy of an octopus is pervasive in the book. It reminds me of the elk and duck hunters who loudly proclaim how much they "love" ducks, elk, and nature and then kill, maim, and blast the same animals with gleeful abandon. In one chapter, an octopus named Kali escapes from a tank at the aquarium at night and dies on the floor. The aquarium staff are sad and cry, but they do not seem to own their responsibility for the death of this animal that they stole from the ocean and kept captive. What is worse, these people recognize the intelligence and emotional capacity of the octopus and still keep it prisoner in a small tank that in no way approximates the stimulation and full life that an octopus would experience in its natural environment.
One octopus handler named Andrew was described in this way: "When all the fish in his tank turned up dead, he didn't cry, but instead asked his mom to borrow her scissors so he could dissect the corpses and find out what went wrong." Sy casually comments that "Octopuses who have been experimentally blinded navigate flawlessly using their sense of touch and taste." How about some sense of outrage at this treatment of living feeling animals? Amazingly Sy writes, "I longed to return to the ocean to watch octopuses where their choices would be as limitless as the sea. Come summer, I would have a chance to get my wish." It is too bad that all of the octopuses held captive in aquariums, dead on aquarium floors or in shipping containers, didn't get their wish.
Top international reviews
On the upside I now know for sure what the plural of octopus is and I am never likely to forget
The book suffers from a degree of repetition:
"They lay strands of eggs that look like grains of rice"
"She is protecting all those eggs, each of which is only the size of a grain of rice"
"Octopuses grow from the size of a grain of rice"
"Hatching from an egg the size of a grain of rice, one can grow both longer and heavier than a man in three years."
Yeah, we get the grain of rice thing! Enough already!
The book also strays into some slightly dodgy territory when the author religion and the "soul" of the octopus, and when she dips into anthropomorphism and tells us, with no evidence (because how could there be?) "we knew in that moment that Octavia had not only remembered us and recognized us; she had wanted to touch us again."
Buy this book. It’s wonderful.