The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery


Three and a half stars, read in November 2017.

There is so much interesting information in this book, but it’s a very personal memoir, too; it’s almost more about the author than it is about octopuses.

(First piece of interesting information: octopi is not the correct plural form! Because the word octopus comes from Greek, and you can’t put a Latin ending on a Greek word. It was part of the eighteenth-century movement when American grammarians were trying to make English less irregular by making it like Latin, which is where we got useless rules about not splitting infinitives, as well. You can say octopi if you want, and if you’re British, apparently you can say octopodes (which is the Greek ending); but octopuses is correct, and you can show this Merriam-Webster video to anyone who tries to tell you differently.)

Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all . . . octopuses are smart.

Some octopus facts I have now learned:

  • Octopuses are much scarier than I knew before reading this. A male Giant Pacific octopus can lift 30 pounds with one sucker, and it has 1600 of them. A bite injects a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that can dissolve flesh.
  • They’re also much less scary, and gross, than they seem. The humans in this book have incredibly sweet, reciprocal relationships with the octopuses in this book (who are all female, by coincidence; Athena, Octavia, Kali, Karma), and it is abundantly clear that these are intelligent creatures.
  • They change color according to circumstances, not just in uniform shades but in patterns as well, depending on what kind of predator or prey they are trying to fool. When they turn white, they’re relaxed; female cuttlefish, which are closely related to octopuses, will turn white when they encounter another female, someone they don’t have to fight.
  • Elephants put their heads in people’s laps to kill them! They crush them like we would put out a cigarette butt. This is obviously not an octopus fact, just a morbidly fascinating one that came up in the book. If an elephant ever seems like it’s trying to cuddle you, run away.
  • You can tell an octopus’s sex by looking at one particular tentacle which the octopus will often specifically keep out of sight. If it has suckers all the way to the end, it’s female; if not, that tentacle is a penis.

I listened to the audiobook, and it’s narrated by the author. It shouldn’t have been; Montgomery is too invested in this story and most of the time you can hear a gigantic smile in her voice. That’d be lovely if I were talking to her in person, or attending a lecture, but it’s just not the experience I’m looking for in an audiobook. I almost switched to the print but didn’t, and it stopped bothering me after a while, but it was definitely a potential deterrent toward the beginning. Altogether, if you’re interested in this type of book—should we call them science memoirs?—The Soul of an Octopus is a good choice.

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