Book Review: The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery

August 11, 2021

 Sometimes you just need to trust someone else’s book recommendation.

July was non-fiction month in my neighborhood book club. The anonymous voting resulted in the choice, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery.

Great. A dull, probably scientific type book by some naturalist guy.

Don’t say that I’m not a trooper. I’ll take one for the cause.

The book was available at my local public library. By the cover, it looked pretty innocuous. My decision was to begin reading it immediately to get through it quickly and read something else.  

I finished the book in two days.

Because it was awesome.


Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, but Sy is a “she.” Her resume is pretty impressive. Often described as “part Indiana Jones, part Emily Dickinson,” she is also a documentary scriptwriter and an author of 28 books, writing for children and adults. The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was on The New York Times Best Seller list.


The author has traveled to some of the world’s most remote wildernesses. She has worked in a pit crawling with 18,000 snakes in Manitoba, hunted by a tiger in India, swam with pink dolphins in the Amazon, and been undressed by an orangutan in Borneo. (Goodreads)


Soul of an Octopus really is about octopuses.
Yet, it reads much more like a memoir.


The book entails Sy's time at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where she immersed herself in the world of marine life. She focused on the octopuses, discovering they each have extraordinarily different personalities. All were females, but clever in their own way. “Just about every animal,” says aquarium senior scientist Scott Kraus, “can learn, recognize individuals, and respond to empathy.”

Joining a small group of volunteers, she spends time with the octopuses, studying the animal's behavior and interaction with humans. What she learned was that octopuses can teach us about the meeting of two very different minds.

Different sections of the book talk about an octopus when in residence at the aquarium.  Each account was not only fascinating but amusing and touching. It created a new appreciation for these intelligent creatures. It’s captivating, even if you know nothing about octopuses before picking up the book. Photos are also included, giving another connection to the octopuses.

But this title isn’t just about the octopuses. Sy shares insights about the volunteers and how their lives have been impacted by their time with the octopuses. In one case, teenage volunteer Anna, who lost her best friend to suicide, found that visiting the aquarium, especially the octopus Octavia, brought solace. When she came to volunteer right after the incident, she felt as though Octavia knew of her grief. “I think she (Octavia) sensed something was wrong. She was gentler than she usually was, and she had her tentacles on my shoulders. It’s hard to explain why I think she understood.”  

Besides her time at the aquarium, Sy shares her experience learning to dive and the subsequent, gratifying diving expedition that was humbling and freeing. "The ocean forces you to move more slowly, more purposefully, and yet more pliantly," she says. "By entering it, you are bathed in a grace and power you don't experience in air." Later, an illuminating church service in Moorea causes Sy to contemplate the mystery of interaction that we pursue in all relationships. 


The author isn’t afraid to experience life and what it can offer. The best advice I received from the book was this: “Go out into the world and where the heart calls you. The blessings will come, I promise you that. I wish for you the insight to recognize the blessings as such, and sometimes it’s hard. But you’ll know it’s a blessing if you are enriched and transformed by the experience. So be ready. There are great souls and teachers everywhere. It’s your job to recognize them.”


Her new book is The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder Beauty, and Renewal on Wings, which I have just checked out from the Libby library. It promises to be just as enlightening as Soul of an Octopus.

If you would like to hear more from Sy Montgomery about her time at the New England Aquarium in Boston, you can watch this YouTube video as part of the ongoing lecture series from the Aquarium. She is introduced by Bill Murphy, Senior Aquarist, who is mentioned in the book.  


4 comments:

  1. Sounds like a very good read. I shall make a note to check it out. I think animals have alot to teach us. I am forever changed by having my dog Sheba for almost 14 years.

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  2. Angie, this book sounds great! It reminds me vividly of the award-winning movie, My Octopus Teacher. I did a post on it recently. I "knew" it would be a real yawn, but we were glued to our chairs. Octopi are absolutely intelligent and empathic!

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  3. I watched the video a few months ago and thought it was a call to rethink how you are doing life.

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  4. The book sounds awesome! Looking forward to your review on The Hummingbirds Gift!

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