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The Soul of an Octopus
A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
Table of Contents
About The Book
Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction * New York Times Bestseller * 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 the Year * An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year
“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
“One of the best science books of the year.” —Science Friday, NPR
Another New York Times bestseller from the author of The Good Good Pig, this “fascinating…touching…informative…entertaining” (The Daily Beast) book explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus—a surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature—and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.
In pursuit of the wild, solitary, predatory octopus, popular naturalist Sy Montgomery has practiced true immersion journalism. From New England aquarium tanks to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico, she has befriended octopuses with strikingly different personalities—gentle Athena, assertive Octavia, curious Kali, and joyful Karma. Each creature shows her cleverness in myriad ways: escaping enclosures like an orangutan; jetting water to bounce balls; and endlessly tricking companions with multiple “sleights of hand” to get food.
Scientists have only recently accepted the intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees but now are watching octopuses solve problems and are trying to decipher the meaning of the animal’s color-changing techniques. With her “joyful passion for these intelligent and fascinating creatures” (Library Journal Editors’ Spring Pick), Montgomery chronicles the growing appreciation of this mollusk as she tells a unique love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about the meeting of two very different minds.
Reading Group Guide
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In The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery recounts her friendships with several octopuses—complex, spirited creatures who make remarkable connections with humans. She explores their almost alien intelligence, one that is of the Earth but so different from our mammalian and human consciousness that it might not be out of place in another world. Practicing true immersion journalism, Montgomery journeys from the New England Aquarium to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of these wild, solitary, predatory mollusks. It’s an underwater adventure story but also the story of relationships that are forged within the community of people that arises from their mutual care for the octopuses. Each octopus turns out to have a distinct personality, and each becomes the central character in her own drama, like a character in a Jane Austen novel. The story is in turn funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, as it reveals what octopuses can teach us about the meeting of two very different minds.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Sy Montgomery writes about her scientific and emotional attraction to octopuses. Did anything surprise you in her poetic, sensuous language about the octopuses? Does she make clear what science cannot explain about octopuses?
2. How does Montgomery describe the different personalities that the octopuses have? Do you agree with her assessments of their attributes? Can you relate to the emotions that she interprets them to have?
3. Otherness is a central issue in the book—the otherness of the octopus with its nature so dramatically different from that of other mollusks as well as the differences between cephalopods and people. How does Montgomery use the otherness of the octopus to show the ways the human characters in the story can feel that they don’t fit in or belong? How do the human characters with their varied backgrounds find ways of coming together and belonging?
4. The similarities between octopuses and humans are another theme. What are the similarities that Montgomery sees? Would you share her point of view or do you see the differences more than the similarities?
5. What does Montgomery reveal about what constitutes consciousness, in humans and animals? Does she show that octopuses have consciousness?
6. Does Montgomery address and answer the question of whether an octopus can have a soul? If so, how does she show the animal has a soul? If not, does she explain that the animal does not have a soul?
7. What is anthropomorphism? Given what science knows now about the consciousness of animals, is anthropomorphism a problem? If so, why?
8. What are the issues involved in collecting wild octopuses from the oceans and studying them in an aquarium?
9. Many cultures consume octopuses as food. Do you see any issues regarding eating octopuses?
10. For a book that imparts a wealth of scientific information about octopuses, Montgomery uses humor and also a deep sense of feeling and respect for the octopus and all of nature. How does Montgomery convey the major conservation issues, such as global warming and the health of the oceans, in the stories she tells in this book about people and animals?
11. Has your view of human consciousness changed after reading this account? Has your view of animal consciousness changed? What information specifically influenced you?
12. Has your perspective on nature and on octopuses been influenced by this book? What views has the book reinforced and what views has it changed your mind about?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Watch videos of octopuses.
New England Aquarium’s Bill Murphy interacts with his late friend George,a giant Pacific octopus:
An octopus materializes from a piece of algae—and then swims away:
The first of Roger Hanlon’s excellent series of lectures on camouflage and signaling in cephalopods. Follow the links to watch the others:
A diver was shocked when an octopus seized his new video camera from his hands—and then made off with the prize, the camera rolling all the while:
Releasing the Dude, a giant Pacific octopus who briefly lived at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, into the wild:
When sharks started showing up dead at the Seattle Aquarium’s large tank, the octopus was found to blame:
Training lumpfish at the New England Aquarium:
A veined octopus tiptoes the sea bottom while carrying a coconut shell half as portable armor:
In a cove in West Seattle, a giant Pacific octopus tenderly cares for her 50,000 eggs as they hatch during the last week of her life:
2. Describe times when you’ve undergone the life passages that the octopus goes through in only two years. What life challenges did you have to face that the octopuses in the aquariums also face? What life challenges have you had to face that the human community that grew up around the octopuses also had to face: your own illness or that of a loved one, difference and desire to fit in, loss and loneliness, the birth and growth of friendships, ways to connect with others through play? What did you learn about your experience and how did it affect your relationships with others?
3. If you had to write a short essay about one of the most difficult parts of your life, what part would you choose to write about? What would be the obstacles to writing about this?
- Publisher: Atria Books (April 5, 2016)
- Length: 272 pages
- ISBN13: 9781451697728
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Raves and Reviews
“Enter the mysterious intelligent alien world of the octopus. Experience a real intelligence based on a sense of touch that humans can barely imagine.”
– Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation
"Renowned author Sy Montgomery's latest gem is a must read for those who want to dissolve the human-constructed borders between "them" (other animals) and us. Surely, there are large differences among nonhuman animals and between nonhuman and human animals, but there also are many basic similarities. Connecting with other animals is part of the essential and personal process of rewilding and reconnecting with other animals, and The Soul of an Octopus is just what is needed to close the gap."
– Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional lives of Animals
"Diving deeper than Jules Verne ever dreamed, The Soul of an Octopus is a page-turning adventure that will leave you breathless. Has science ever been this deliciously hallucinatory? Boneless and beautiful, the characters here are not only big-hearted, they're multi-hearted, as well as smart, charming, affectionate...and, of course, ambidextrous. If there is a Mother Nature, her name is Sy Montgomery."
– Vicki Constantine Croke, author of Elephant Company
"In The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery immerses readers into an intriguing, seductive world just beneath the ocean waves and the lives of the creatures living within. In this beautifully written book, she brings empathy, insight, and an enchanting sense of wonderment to the bonds we inherently share with other beings—even those seeming far different from us."
– Vint Virga, DVM, The Soul of All Living Creatures
“A captivating book on an intelligence as ‘alien’ as one from outer space. And its not science fiction.”
– Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
"Can an octopus have a mind and emotions, let alone a soul? Sy Montgomery faces these questions head-on in her engaging new book as she explores the world of octopuses, making friends with several and finding heartbreak when they die. They aren't, she discovers, simply brainless invertebrates, but personable, playful, conscious beings. Montgomery's enthusiasm for animals most of us rarely see is infectious, and readers will come away with a new appreciation for what it means to be an octopus."
– Virginia Morell, author of ANIMAL WISE: How We Know Animals Think and Feel
"With apparent delight, Montgomery puts readers inside the world of these amazing creatures. A fascinating glimpse into an alien consciousness."
– Kirkus Reviews
"The Soul of an Octopus is one of those works that makes you hope we can save the planet if for no other reason than to preserve the wondrous beasts we are fortunate enough to share it with."
– Steve Lysaker, Outward Hounds
"Sy Montgomery’s joyful passion for these intelligent and fascinating creatures will have you rethinking that order of calamari."
– Library Journal Editors' Spring Pick
"Sweet moments are at the heart of Montgomery's compassionate, wise and tender new book... Only a writer of her talent could make readers care about octopuses as individuals... Joins a growing body of literature that asks us to rethink our connection to nonhumans who may be more like us than we had supposed."
– St. Paul Pioneer Press
"I can't do justice to the wonder of this book, the joy and pain and fellowship and grief that Montgomery brings to life with her words...Completely engrossing and accessible."
"Montgomery's passion for other species is infectious...[Her] warmth and exuberance...make good reading, and her awe and admiration are uplifting... I felt informed, moved, and inspird - whieh is all a reader could possibly hope for from a book."
– Union Leader
"An engaging work of natural science... There is clearly something about the octopus’s weird beauty that fires the imaginations of explorers, scientists, writers."
– The Daily Mail - UK
"Fascinating... touching... informative... Entertaining books like The Soul of an Octopus remind us of just how much we not only have to learn from fellow creatures, but that they can have a positive impact on our lives."
– DAILY BEAST
"A gripping new book bridges the gap between humans and one of this planet's strangest and most wondrous creatures."
– Global Newswire
"Journalistic immersion... allows Montgomery to deliver a deeper understanding of the 'other,' thereby adding to our understanding of ourselves. A good book might illuminate something you knew little about, transform your world view, or move you in ways you didn't think possible. The Soul of an Octopus delivers on all three."
– New Scientist
"Charming and moving...with extraordinary scientific research."
– The Guardian (UK)
"[Montgomery's] compassion and respect for the species make for a buoying read."
"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)
"Informative and entertaining, part memoir and part scientific exploration, reminds us that if we are the best creatures on the planet at thinking, we can benefit by thinking about the creatures that may be doing it in some other way."
– Columbus Dispatch
"Naturalist Montgomery writes exceptionally affecting and enlightening books inspired by both rigorous scientific curiosity and enraptured wonder and empathy for all living beings...In prose as gripping and entwining as her
subjects’ many arms, Montgomery chronicles the octopus’ phenomenal strength, dexterity, speed... She also tells funny and moving stories about her friendships... Montgomery’s uniquely intimate portrait of the elusive octopus profoundly recalibrates our perception of consciousness, communication, and community."
– Booklist (STARRED review)
“What makes this book unusual is that Montgomery doesn't try to answer this question [about consciousness] by sifting through piles of research. Instead, she ... listens. She develops extensive relationships with a handful of individual octopuses at the New England Aquarium, each with its own personality, its mundane dramas and tragedies. She records every small moment, treating each octopus like a character in a Jane Austen novel. The effect is wonderful. By the end, it's hard to shake the feeling that these bizarre creatures really do have rich internal lives, even if we still lack the imagination to grasp them entirely.“
“Montgomery’s journey of discovery encourages the reader to reflect on his or her own definition of consciousness and 'soul.' In the end, the book leaves one with the impression that our way of interacting with the world is not the only way or the most superior way and that sentience similarly comes in a variety of equally astounding forms, all worthy of recognition and compassion.”
– Science Magazine
“Montgomery’s journey of discovery encourages the reader to reflect on his or her own definition of consciousness and “soul.” In the end, the book leaves one with the impression that our way of interacting with the world is not the only way or the most superior way and that sentience similarly comes in a variety of equally astounding forms, all worthy of recognition and compassion.”
– Shelf Awareness, Best Book of 2015 List
A Notable Book of the Year
– Huffington Post
"The Soul of an Octopus is an astoundingly beautiful read in its entirety, at once scientifically illuminating and deeply poetic, and is indeed a worthy addition to the best science books of the year."
– Science Friday, NPR
"This miraculously insightful and enchanting book expands our understanding of consciousness and sheds light on the very notion of what we call a “soul.”…. The book’s greatest reward isn’t the fascinating science — although that is riveting and ablaze with rigor — but Montgomery’s bewitching prose, pouring from the soul of a literary naturalist who paints the marvels of the ocean’s depths like Thoreau did the marvels of the New England woods."
“Award-winning author Montgomery reveals [octopuses’] beauty. The book takes readers on a vivid tour of their complex inner world… explores their proclivities, their relationships and their intelligence and ultimately tries to deduce whether they possess consciousness… It is hard to come away from this book without a new appreciation for these wonderful creatures.”
– Scientific American
2016 Notable Book
– American Library Association
Awards and Honors
- ALA Notable Book
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