The Soul of An Octopus

The Soul of An Octopus

A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

Book - 2015
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Finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction

New York Times Bestseller

"Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus does for the creature what Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk did for raptors." -- New Statesman , UK

Starred Booklist and Library Journal Editors' Spring Pick

"One of the best science books of the year" -- Science Friday , NPR

A Huffington Post Notable Nonfiction Book of the Year

One of the Best Books of the Month on Goodreads

Library Journal Best Sci-Tech Book of 2015

An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year

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.

Sy Montgomery's popular 2011 Orion magazine piece, "Deep Intellect," about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death, went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. Since then Sy has practiced true immersion journalism, from New England aquarium tanks to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico, pursuing these wild, solitary shape-shifters. 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.
Publisher: New York : Atria Books, 2015.
Edition: First Atria Books hardcover edition.
ISBN: 9781451697711
Branch Call Number: 594.56 MONTGOME
Characteristics: 261 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : color illustrations ; 22 cm


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From the critics

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Oct 02, 2020


Feb 20, 2020

A bit like if a textbook was a novel. Interesting exploration and experience. Enjoyed learning something new. Poetic way of writing about the subject matter.

Michael Colford Dec 03, 2019

I have become obsessed with the octopus. I had already decided that I just couldn't eat them anymore because they're so smart, someone suggested I read The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery. I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but Montgomery's book and the octopus itself, is so fascinating, so compelling, that I just devoured this.

As a naturalist, and author of twenty books about the animal world, when a growing interest about this mysterious cephalopod emerged, Montgomery was able to dive full-force into an investigation that yielded results she couldn't have imagined. Commuting from her cabin in the New Hampshire woods, Montgomery became a fixture at the New England Aquarium, studying and yes, befriending a series of octopus who taught here that there are still so many things that man just doesn't understand, not the least of which is that intelligence and consciousness housed in a creature so alien to us that they're nearly impossible to fathom. Whether she was communing with the giant Pacific Octopus on exhibit at the aquarium, or cavorting with wild octopus in the Caribbean after learning how to scuba dive, Montgomery's experiences changed her life.

The cast of characters, both cephalopod and human, in The Soul of an Octopus are brought so thoroughly to life by Montgomery's writing, that I truly feel as though I know them. Never has anything made me want to explore the undersea world so much, something that is inherently terrifying for me. I don't think I'm going to learn to scuba dive anytime soon, but you can bet I'll be visiting the Aquarium in the near future.

Nov 14, 2019

The subject itself is fascinating, and I enjoyed the book for awhile, but eventually got tired of the author's constant descriptions and details about humans she interacts with throughout the book. I'm more interested in the octopus than the human, and that's what I wanted to learn about.

CCCL_AlisonM Oct 31, 2019

Fascinating! Because of this book, I've added 'having a friendship with an octopus' to my bucket list. Wish me luck.

Oct 12, 2019

Just finished and already one of my favorite books of all time.
The author has a unique ability to describe emotional, touching events in a way that makes you feel like you're experiencing everything with her. She shares the octupuses' beauty, intelligence, gentleness, play, and wisdom in such a poignant and relatable way.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about animal intelligence and consciousness both from scientific and emotional perspectives!

ArapahoeKati Jun 18, 2019

This book made me want to live by the ocean, learn to scuba dive, volunteer at an aquarium and stop using plastic bags.

Jun 15, 2018

Um....What?! Captured from the wild and held in captivity without injury or need for rehabilitation? Haven't human beings moved beyond this? I guess not. The cute stories about them repeatedly trying to escape? Not cute. This is more a book about the author and her "feelings" than a study of the amazing creature that is the octopus. Did nobody else take issue with this?
Glad it was from the library so I didn't put a dime in her pocket.

Apr 27, 2018

When I first picked up this book I didn't realize it was actually about octopuses. I thought the octopus was a metaphor for consciousness. At one point in the book, someone says "there's nothing as peculiar as an octopus." All I could think is this person never met my ex-boss.

This maybe one of the best books I've read about any type of creature, probably because it put me in the author's shoes as she got to know a few individual octopuses.

The factoids on octopuses were absolutely fascinating. It's amazing to think a huge octopus can melt like butter through a crevice or hang out in a beer bottle or some other tiny place all scrunched up for long periods of times. They really are the ultimate shape shifters, constantly changing colors and shapes and textures. It's staggering to think that a creature known for its changing of colors is colorblind. I heard a piece on NPR once where an artist that was color blind had a device implanted that allowed him to hear colors. Apparently, every color has a frequency. Maybe octopuses have some similar ability.

The description of the sheer force of an octopuses' suckers was stunning, yet they know how to be gentle in tasting a humans skin without leaving a mark, both in captivity and in the wild.

If that weren't enough, they have three hearts and a brain that wraps around their throat and their mouth is in their armpits.

The author stated that octopuses treat each human being as individuals, they like some and others not so much. I know some can't fathom that other creatures have thoughts and complex emotional lives, but that seems mostly to be born out of ignorance or the need to objectify for subjugations sake. The fact that any animal is aware of a human should be proof enough that they are sentient beings. We should just assume that's true until proven otherwise. This bending over backwards to disregard even the possibility of emotion and intelligence in other creatures is unscientific and quite frankly biased as hell. This is a dangerous state of mind and one that must be challenged as the dark underbelly of this view more times than not is tied to someone making money off of objectifying creatures.

It was sad to learn that octopuses suffer something akin to human dementia toward the end of their lives. Not just some, but all octopuses.

Toward the end of the book, the author learns to scuba dive. She shares it so honestly. The disappointment, the wonder, the dangers. She describes her first real dive as making her feel like an invisible time traveler to another planet. So many think about life on other planets when we have so much yet to discover in our own backyard.

The description of octopus sex was riveting but so was that of sea snail sex. Sea snails have both female and male sex organs and there's no way to candy-coat this - after each sexual encounter, their penises fall off. They then grow a new one in 24 hours and do it again.

Being loners, the female octopus has been known to eat the male after sex. Sometimes instead of sex. So male octopuses understandably sometimes try to keep their distance during sex in case they need to make a quick escape. Though, the octopuses the author saw mate stayed embraced for hours.

At one point the author goes to octopus church, an eight sided structure that reveres octopuses. Folklore has octopuses controlling the weather and one ancient myth tells us our current universe is really the remnant of a more ancient one - the only survivor of which is the octopus who managed to slip between the narrow crack between worlds.

As the author ends the book, she still has so many questions about octopuses, not in general but specifically per individual octopuses. She realizes she can't know exactly what she means or meant to any of the octopuses. She can only know what they have meant to her.

Dec 21, 2017

This was an enjoyable book about the interactions between humans & octopuses and how they may see us. It has a lot of interesting facts and a number of scientists are consulted for their comments or research on octopuses. It is more a book about how humans feel about the octopus and and how they react to humans, rather than a hard science examination of octopuses. Still, I learned a good bit about the animal and the stories of human-octopus interactions were very interesting. Adults will value this book more than younger readers, but it is a light read and has joys for anyone interested in the subject.

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Jun 17, 2017

csrestall thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over

Aug 24, 2015

EKelly_0 thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over


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Jun 17, 2017

This book encompasses the writers interactions with octopuses, from her first encounter to developing a deep relationship with octopuses in captivity and in the wild. The book details the lives of four main octopuses, Athena who introduces the author to octopuses in general, Octavia a wild captured octopus who lives out the rest of her life in the aquarium, Kali a young octopus who succumbs to an unpleasant fate, and Karma also a young octopus. The octopus adventure begins when the author meets Athena her first octopus friend. She is enraptured by the creatures from first touch. Athena dies suddenly without laying eggs so another octopus must be found. Octavia is captured already mature from the wild and is the only octopus that learned how to camouflage. She is in the majority of the book and lives out the rest of her life at the aquarium eventually laying eggs and dying of old age. Kali is intended to be her replacement however when they transfer her to a new tank she escapes over night and is found dead the next morning. Karma is the replacement for Kali and we don't learn to much about her as she is introduced towards the end of the book. The book also details other goings on at the aquarium and small details about the other animals, as well as the authors trials with learning to scuba dive and her interactions with wild octopus.

Aug 24, 2015

A well written blend of anecdotes and scientific evidence exploring the mystery of the behaviour and conscience of octopuses.


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“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.”
― Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness


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