As I continue to catch up on books missed in 2015, I recently finished The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. The book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, though the award ultimately went to, of course, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates was seemingly everywhere in 2015, and while I do agree that his book is important and deeply moving, I am always taken aback as to how quickly we amplify a single voice. The Soul of an Octopus explores questions like what is the soul, what is consciousness, and are we alone in those tremendous feats or are animals like the octopus in our company? The author is sensitive and soulful, as seen in tidbits like this:
“While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, and uplink to universal consciousness – the notion, first advanced by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in 480 BC, of sharing an intelligence that animates and organizes all life” (p. 90).
Much of the book takes place at the New England Aquarium, where the author forms bonds with people and octopuses alike. There are four octopuses – Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma – and each exhibits a wholly unique personality and “sparkling mind,” as do the octopuses encountered in the wild. Octopus facts are scattered throughout (it has a beak like a parrot, a remarkable curiosity, an ability to change color and texture instantly), as if the most useful parts of a National Geographic documentary are woven into a much more relatable, nuanced narrative. We are often skeptical of animal intelligence or consciousness, and this book serves as a fascinating and eloquent defense of octopuses being in possession of both. Every turn of the page forces you to think bigger, to push aside the idea that everything non-human is “the Other.” The Soul of an Octopus inspires you to breach the supposed boundary between humans and, well, everything else, and when you do, the beauty of life on Earth astounds all the more. We are left, as we inevitably are, with the staggering truth of how little we know, and that reminder should make us feel all the more human.