Book Review: The Soul of an Octopus

Genre: Nonfiction | Science

Stars: 4-1/2 out of 5

Synopsis from The Storygraph: In this astonishing book from the author of the bestselling memoir The Good Good Pig, Sy Montgomery explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus–a surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature–and the remarkable connections it makes with humans. Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think?The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques. Montgomery chronicles this growing appreciation of the octopus, but also tells a love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.

This book originally came on my radar after listening to A Book Olive’s podcast last year when she raved about it. I do tend to like science-related nonfiction books and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Written with a sense of humor as well as a tone that unmistakably tells you how much Montgomery fell in love with these unique marine creatures, the book does a fine job of teaching you LOTS about octopuses, as well as making you fall in love with them as well.

Most of the anecdotes are focused around the octopus Montgomery comes to know within an aquarium setting, but she also learns to scuba-dive in order to see these creatures in the wild. The portrait that emerges is that of a curious, intelligent creature with amazing strength and dexterity. One of my favorite quotes (paraphrased here) is when a graduate researcher explains they have set up a maze to test the octopuses’ “intelligence”, but recognizes that what we as humans consider “intelligent”, an octopus may have a completely different scale they are working off, so if we are basing our categorization of an octopus as “intelligent” using our human-based definition, it’s already a biased study. As with most creatures, every octopus is their own being (which is, after all, the point of Montgomery’s book) with different ways of approaching a problem, of responding to stimuli, of engaging with the world around them. This, for me, is the delightful part of the book – recognizing how many amazing things there are in this world still to be found and understood (or at least understood as much as humans can) – and can allow us to engage with the world at large in a much broader way if we are willing to ditch preconceived notions and permit ourselves to expand our definitions of things like “intelligence” and “curiosity”.

A very good read!

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Soul of an Octopus

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this, unfortunately it doesn’t exist on audio yet. Glad you enjoyed it, octopuses really are fascinating creatures!

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