Books

the story behind the book

‘The Soul of the Octopus’ by Sy Montgomery

david wilson for the boston globe

Sy Montgomery has written 19 previous books about animals of all kinds, but for her latest, “The Soul of an Octopus,” she found herself researching an entirely new phylum. “I have thought for a long time that one day, if I finally got to deserve it, I would love to write about the minds of invertebrates,” she said.

The invertebrates in question are octopuses. “I write about several of them from the New England Aquarium,” said Montgomery, who traveled the world seeking out the cephalopods. “They all have distinctive personalities, and they all behave differently toward individual people. If you go to an aquarium you’ll notice that not all the fish have names, but invariably the octopus has a name, and invariably the octopus has earned the name.”

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Two of the octopuses (yes, despite what you may have learned in grade school, that is the preferred term) Montgomery met at the Seattle Aquarium were Emily Dickinson (shy, naturally), and Leisure Suit Larry. “His arms were all over you,” she said, “and the minute you pulled one arm off, two more glommed on.”

This strong sense of personality attracted her to the animals, said Montgomery, who co-writes a Globe column, “Tamed and Untamed.” “We split from our common ancestor with the octopus half a billion years ago. And yet — you can make friends with an octopus.”

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Is friendship the right word, really, or is that anthropomorphizing a set of animal reactions and responses? Montgomery rejects the question. “Anthropomorphism is such an interesting concept,” she said. “It means projecting human thoughts and emotions onto an animal. Which implies that thoughts and feelings belong to humans alone. Of course, if you believe in evolution, or if you believe in the Bible, that’s not so. Both evolution and the Bible tell us that we’re part of a family.”

Montgomery will read Friday at 7 p.m. at the Jabberwocky Bookshop, 50 Water St., Newburyport.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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