I expected The Soul of an Octopus to be a philosophical look at what we know about octopuses’ inner lives compared to what we know about humans’ inner lives. I expected to be faced with some tough questions about what defines and differentiates humanity from other creatures and to be surprised by the depth and oneness of all life.
This book, while good, isn’t that. The author touches very briefly on the philosophy of the mind in a few different places, but skirts the really hard questions. Mostly, the book is a detailed memoir of the author’s research for this book, centering on her experiences with the New England Aquarium in Boston. And, although I was disappointed not to get the book I was expecting, her experiences over this year or two were still quite interesting.
The author gets a pretty incredible opportunity to visit with a series of octopuses at the aquarium before they are put on display for the public. She gets to know their personalities, and she gets to watch their incredible bodies work. I definitely learned a lot about octopuses through this book, and now I really want to go somewhere where I can watch them interact with their environments. (One thing I learned is that they’re hard to keep in captivity, and my local aquarium doesn’t have one.)
Overall, this is a good, entertaining way to learn about this incredible animal and a couple of the people the author meets at the aquarium. It’s just not a deep dive into what it means to have consciousness and the ability to empathize with other creatures.
I usually try to read novels as stand-alone pieces of art. I avoid reviews and critical theories about the novel’s meaning/importance/symbolism/whatever. Sometimes, I’m aware of the context, or I’ll do little research on the setting, but not much. It’s not until after I finish a work that I try to find out how others interpreted it. Certainly, there are pros and cons to this strategy, and others may disagree with it. But it usually helps me to form my own opinion first and then let that opinion be influenced later.
However, I felt like I missed a lot in One Hundred Years of Solitude by following this strategy. This feels like a book that it best read in a college course, where a professor has identified a bunch of related readings and can lead a conversation about what it all means. At minimum, maybe it should just have a lot of editor’s footnotes in it.
Because I don’t know what this all means. I understand that it’s a reflection of Latin America, but I also know that I’m missing a lot of the context here. Even down to the title—time, in the novel, is presented as cyclical and repetitive, so who/what is alone for one hundred years? The language and the metaphors are beautiful throughout, but I can’t see what they’re obscuring.
I have more research to do here, obviously. At some later point, I’ll probably read this book again and re-evaluate my reaction to it. But for now, it has left me intrigued.
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