For the last few weeks I have been reading with Non-Fiction November in mind. It has been an inspiring, thought-provoking and challenging experience.
My first read was The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. Subtitled “A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness“, this book is described as an exploration of “the emotional and physical world of the octopus—a surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature—and the remarkable connections it makes with humans”. I was not sure what to expect – indeed, I was not even sure why I was reading it in the first place. But it turned out to be completely engrossing – that wonderful and rare kind of book that you can hardly bear to put down, you think about when not reading, and cannot wait to get back to.
Montgomery writes tenderly about the amazing attributes of the octopuses she observes and comes to love (she also explains why it is not ‘octopi’).
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, I had read that octopuses are smart.
At the start of the book, I could not help but feel a bit squeamish, adopting a standard sci-fi/horror movie image of an octopus in my mind – an approach swiftly anticipated and gently biffed away by Montgomery:
A horror of giant octopuses and their kin, giant squid, has animated Western art forms from thirteenth-century Icelandic legends to twentieth-century American films…….but to me, [the first octopus encountered] was more than an octopus. She was an individual—who I liked very much—and also, possibly, a portal. She was leading me to a new way of thinking about thinking, of imagining what other minds might be like. And she was enticing me to explore, in a way I never had before, my own planet—a world of mostly water, which I hardly knew.
I made the following note in response: “Nevertheless, I still find myself recoiling in horror at the descriptions and the thought of an Octopus’s suckers and tentacles. Will this change during the course of the book I wonder?” As Montgomery’s story unfolded, my instinctive aversion relaxed and I submitted first to curiosity and then avid fascinating.
At the Seattle Aquarium, Sammy the giant Pacific octopus enjoyed playing with a baseball-size plastic ball that could be screwed together by twisting the two halves. A staffer put food inside the ball but later was surprised to find that not only had the octopus opened the ball, it had screwed it back together when it was done.
Upon reaching the end of the book I found myself rushing to YouTube to find footage of octopuses so that I could see them in more detail for myself. It is simply stunning to learn more about animal intelligence, especially in a species so very different from our own.
This book sums up the benefits of reading non-fiction, and also demonstrates how it is not just novels that can transport us to wildly different worlds through story-telling. I have now started reading Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith. And if you fancy a brief glimpse of what all the fuss is about, check out this short BBC clip. I love one of the comments posted by a viewer:
NASA : There [is] no credible evidence of alien life
Octopus : Hahahaha
My other plans for the month quite unexpectedly had me hitting the reading buffers. For some time, I had been planning to re-read Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s magnificent polemic against the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. I first read this about 20 years ago and, with environmental issues quite rightly featuring so prominently in our lives at the moment, it seemed like the perfect time to pick it up again.
But I could not finish it. In fact, I only managed the first few chapters. Carson first published her devastating analysis of the far-reaching problems caused by widespread use of synthetic biochemicals to enhance food production in 1962. And in the last couple of weeks we have seen British politicians arguing about what should be done to tackle the very problems she identified more than 50 years ago. It made me feel sick. But I also realised that it is not good enough to turn away from these realities and the problems to which we have all contributed. I found a way forward in this article on the brilliant Brain Pickings site, which entreats us “Let’s not let Rachel Carson seem to have lived in vain”. At the very least I should put my big girl reading pants on and finish the book.
So that is what I am now doing, interspersed with listening to a wonderful audio version of Nan Shepherd’s utterly ravishing tribute to her life in the Scottish Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. This, plus Mongomery’s work, provides a reminder, as if one were needed, of the reason for standing face on with the uncomfortable truths about the way we treat our planet.
And to help us keep our spirits up while we do so? Here is just one example of a basis for hope….