I am not a purveyor of nonfiction. If you ask me why I don’t read it, I will tell you that too often dry, dusty, and unimaginative. However, “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration of the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery is none of those things. As you may imagine, it is indeed about octopuses (the first thing I learned from the book as that octopi is not a linguistically correct term), but it is also about lasting friendships between both humans and humans and humans and animals.
Over the course of the book, the reader is introduced to four octopuses: Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. Montgomery explains that octopuses, like people, possess wildly different personalities, and as she explains the myriad personalities of these four octopuses to the reader, she also explores the study of animal consciousness.
One of my favorite aspects of the book was Montgomery’s gentle persuasion to her argument; you didn’t even realize she was making an argument until you’d been swayed to her side. Using her own experiences with octopuses, she argues they do possess consciousness, though it is very different from that of humans. Her evidence is primarily anecdotal, and she relates it so beautifully that it is a pleasure to finish the book and find that you agree with her.
Another part from the book that made it an especially fascinating read is the way Montgomery discusses octopuses’ consciousness. She is able to confirm that they are capable of thoughts and feelings without humanizing them; she establishes that they experience these things differently than humans do.
As it is a nonfiction book, it is still full of scientific facts, but they are fascinating. For example, octopuses have tiny brains, but they have neurons spread all throughout their arms, so their arms can move without the brain necessarily being aware of it. Also, they have beaks, but it’s rare to see it because they never show it to anyone. My personal favorite is that they can taste with their suckers, so they can tell people from one another based on how their limbs taste when they grab them.
While the author befriends octopuses, she also befriends the humans who love them the same way she does. In relating her experiences with the friend she makes, she adds another layer of depth to the book; it becomes not only about the connections we can form with creatures who are completely alien from us, but also the genuine human connections one can form as a result of those same creatures.
If you’re an animal lover, or even just if you’re curious about the world around you, this book is definitely for you. If you’re not the kind of person who usually reads nonfiction, I challenge you to give it a shot. You might end up loving octopuses as much as I do.