I read a non-fiction book! I’m always a bit proud of myself for this, as I usually only bother to read things that are not true. But I read an article about The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and octopuses are endlessly fascinating, so I decided to read it. It is an illuminating read!
First, this book decides the plural form of octopus once and for all. Right there on page one: “I knew little about octopuses–not even that the scientifically correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending – i – on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus).” So stop saying
octopi! The correct it octopuses. I know, I know. It sounds weird. But it’s correct.
I really enjoyed reading about Montgomery’s adventures and interactions with her octopus friends. She mostly details her visits and experiences to one particular aquarium and their octopuses, but she recounts a few ocean dives as well, complete with wild octopus interactions. All of her time spent with Kali, Octavia, Athena, Karma, and others both fascinated me and made me jealous of the relationships she built with these seemingly primitive (but oh boy, not actually primitive!) animals.
This book taught me so much. I knew a few things about octopuses, from reading articles or watching videos (thanks, Internet). I knew they change color like lightning and they can escape from jars (and foretell the future?). This book took me so far beyond that. I learned that, for relatively large animals they have very short lifespans. They aren’t just smart–they’re incredibly smart. Their brains are kind of…everywhere. They feel affection and jealousy and have prejudices, just like humans. At several parts of the book I felt as though the author described one of her human friends, only to realize she was describing an octopus. They can also squirt water, and will absolutely soak you if you annoy them, or if they take a dislike to you. And they bite!
This book helped me see another side of aquariums. The idea of taking wild animals out of the wild and putting them in enclosures distresses me. But I realized that aquariums can show the masses the faces of the animals who live beneath the waves. It reveals that the ocean is not just a flat, silver surface with theoretical life teeming below. It brings people face-to-face with what they may never see elsewhere. There were several points in the book where the author overhears people talking about how gross the octopus looks. With one or two facts, she helps transform the octopus before them from something “icky” into an interesting and sympathetic creature. The keepers, too, love their animals like friends or children. They rush them to the vet if something is wrong. They fret over surgeries. They worry if they’re bored or depressed, and they try to help them if they are. And they mourn the passing of the animals with all the grief of losing a human friend. I still think SeaWorld is the devil, but aquariums whose goal is not profit, but education, conservation, and rehabilitation are actually valuable facilities that can help the next generation understand why ocean conservation is so vitally important. (But NO WHALES.)
Montgomery’s opportunity to explore octopus behavior and animal consciousness is immensely fun to read about. Sy Montgomery does not use tremendously difficult-to-grasp scientific language. It is a good book for everyday people who love animals and take interest in all things octopus, and who might have difficulty wading through more technical language. In her series of anecdotes, Montgomery reveals an animal that is fiercely intelligent, intrepid, and full of surprises. I think you will like this delightful little book.