Arm-y: On Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I’m glad about that. I — in an ironic twist, as I love to eat octopus — was consumed by it. It struck me as a beautifully balanced braid of science, human interest, and philosophical inquiry. She informs us about this fascinating cephalopod and what research is discovering about them; gives us intimacy with both her own experience with researching the book and with the people she encountered who know about, work with, and love octopuses (yes, that’s the preferred form of it — octopus is a Greek-derived word, but the -i is Latinate ending)(or something like that), as well as the octopuses themselves, who stole the show; and uses the experience as a way to think about consciousness. This is what I love about this kind of nonfiction, that braiding technique. The philosophical inquiry considers the limitations of human empathy and imagination, the essential unknowable-ness of something so “other,” and yet the undeniable ability to recognize and connect. And an octopus that launches itself up from the bottom of its tank, squirts somebody in the face, and then sinks back down seeming to be pleased with itself brings it all together in a fabulous eight-ribboned package. Anthropomorphization? Or are we all comedians? I think, therefore I laugh?

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