“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body” – Reading for Non-Fiction November

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….



*Title quote is by Joseph Addison
**Featured image: Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash




Autumn Reflections on Summer High Jinks: Part Two

In my last post, I wrote about the fun and frolics of this year’s summer, with a promise of further reflections about my souvenir stack of books.


As I mentioned previously, I try not to bring physical books into our apartment these days. We have just about enough space for the books currently in our library, and not too much more. I mostly try to read e-books for convenience these days. But it is hard to resist such delicious treats sometimes.

All of the books in the stack are for reading. Some are also for looking at. They all, just by chance, have marvellously tactile qualities, enhancing the physical experience of reading all the more.

I bought Felix CulpaDrawing Water and Dull Margaret after attending author events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Jeremy Gavron’s novel is about the search for a troubled boy recently released from prison. The text has been woven like a rich tapestry with lines from 100 other books. As a result, it reads like a beautiful prose poem, full of wonder and depth. Gavron gave a fascinating and very personal talk about how he came to publish such a work, including several readings. I urged him to create an audio version when he signed my copy – fingers crossed.

Tania Kovats hosted a thought-provoking event in which she talked to Maria Popova (of BrainPickings fame) about the pioneering environmentalist, Rachel Carson and her seminal work The Sea Around Us. The discussion ranged widely, touching on issues such as climate change, women being taken seriously (or not), and the power of art and poetry to illuminate complex issues. In Drawing Water, Kovats has curated a wonderful collection of art and writings from all kinds of people who are searching for something via the medium of water: map-makers, whalers, engineers etc. It is the most gorgeous collection and one which I will be dipping in to forever.

Before attending the event with actor Jim Broadbent and illustrator Dix, I was not sure about their book Dull Margaret, with its rather brutal graphic depiction of the title character’s bleak existence. Having heard them talk about generously about the development process, with Jim Broadbent at his lyrical best, expanding eloquently about his love for the beleaguered Margaret, I just had to buy a copy. I am only slowly becoming more acquainted with graphic novels and it is a fascinating journey.


Further visual feasts were in store, with Roger Billcliffe’s talk about ‘The Art of the Four’, namely Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret MacDonald, her sister Frances MacDonald and James Herbert McNair. His recent book about the work of these four friends and their relationship with the rest of the art world is a sumptuous read as well as being utterly absorbing visually. I love Margaret’s work in particular and it was such a pleasure to hear more about these important artists.

And more visual stimulation arrived via Fiona Watson and Piers Dixon, who spoke entertainingly about their work on the relationship between Scottish history and the landscape around us. I am fascinated by the geology of Scotland, as well as being totally in love with this gorgeous part of the world. I am looking forward to spending many hours pouring over the amazing pictures and brilliant insights in their book.


Kate Davies’ book Handywoman is a must-read for anyone interested in the life- and health-enhancing features of creativity. It is no secret that I am passionate about the importance of creativity in our lives, whatever form it may take. I therefore also love the ethos behind the Knitsonik Stranded Colourwork Playbook, which celebrate the ordinary and everyday through stranded knitting. I know both these books will provide much inspiration.


I picked up these two books in the Book Festival shop while kidding myself that I was just having a browse and did not intend to buy anything.  Matthew Herbert’s novel takes place over the course of just an hour. I think its reading experience may be similar to Jeremy Gavron’s novel in that it is a non-traditional, poetic treatment of words as experiences and emotions. Ziyad Marar’s book takes a look at that endlessly fascinating topic of how we judge, and are judged. Once I had picked it up, I could not put it down again because the cover feels so gorgeous. But more seriously, it chimes directly with the themes I am currently exploring with my sister on our Bald as Brass Blog.


As for these Victoria Crowe books, well that deserves a whole post to itself – the third and final part of this mini-series, coming soon….


In the meantime, let me close this post with the book on the top of my pile – Dear Heart, by Jenny Davis. This is one of those books which feels like a sacred and rare jewel in the hand. It was recommended by my dear friend Gallivanta, who wrote:

‘In 1988 Jenny Davis stumbled upon dozens of letters her aunt, Wynne, had written to her young soldier husband Mickey during World War II. Many of the letters remained unopened, still bearing the mark of their tragedy, a war office stamp, “No Trace”. This book is the story of an exceptional love as told by those letters written over a four year period from 1941 – first daily, then weekly. Wynne received only two replies and yet she poured out her hopes and reassurances and titbits of news from the home front. In 1945, at the end of the war, Wynne received both the unopened letters, and the news that Mickey had died in 1943 in Malaya, in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.’

I just had to get my own copy and how glad I am that I did. I am of course looking forward to delving into the story. It also acts as a mark of friendship across the miles. How I love this online community of ours! 🙂