Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review: Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate by Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson, and James B. Wood

When my octo-obsession began, I spent quite some time complaining that kids got all the good books. Then I found Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate and was made happy. Written by three marine biologists, Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson, and James B. Wood, it is a comprehensive overview of octopus studies, detailing both the scientifically verifiable, repeatable experiment, and the anecdotal, and being clear on why it includes both and what weight they attach to each.

Chapter insets by individual author detail personal encounters and experience in the author's area of expertise. For example, Roland C. Anderson talks of counting copepods in one insert and the possibility that buried stubby squid leave one arm out to angle for fish in another; Jennifer A. Mather describes watching varied behaviors in the same type of octopus and realizing that they had individual personalities and then writes in a following insert about her later experience working on ethical standards for invertebrate care; the entire final chapter on caring for octopuses in the aquarium is by James B. Wood, and he writes inserts about his early experience keeping octopuses.

I had (and have) a lot to learn about octopuses, so the book is studded with bookmarks and full of bits I read out loud to anyone who would listen. The whole decentralized nervous system/brain issue absolutely fascinates me, for one thing. The anecdote about Charles, the octopus who didn't want to play by laboratory rules, made me laugh: rather than pulling a lever for food, he squirted researchers and "eventually pulled the lever out of the tank wall."

I'm also impressed by the athors' ongoing description of studying cephalopods, one of not quite knowing which questions to ask, framing one question to find another, sometimes finding satisfactory answers, but never really finishing because there is always more to learn.

Unusually for this type of book, Octopus ends with a chapter on how to keep the subject in an aquarium. I, myself, have no desire to keep an octopus, but found it refreshing: Most nature books, after including several charming and enlightening stories of encounters with the wild will end up with some sort of "Hands off!" warning. It's rather nice to read some nature writers who trust their audience, at least a little bit.

Two minor caveats: Octopus is clear, insightful, and comprehensive. The authors never talk down to their audience. This makes it perfect for someone who is already interested in the cephalopods. The book is not one of those stylistic tour de forces that will draw anyone in, no matter their prior interest in corpses or orchids or what-have-you (in other words, it's not by Mary Roach or Susan Orlean). This both in its favor and not: It doesn't waste time on linguistic flourishes (Don't get me wrong; I like linguistic flourishes; Roach and Orlean are two of my favorite authors, but convincing people to get interested in something takes space that could be devoted to just diving in and discussing it), and it won't try to coax the reluctant reader in.

Also, it was published in 2010. That's recent enough for a good, solid overview, but in many scientific fields, three years (a bit more, given manuscript editing and such), can be a very long time. I'm not sure how it rates in octopus study time, though I don't think it's quite as changeable as, say, quantum mechanics (which changes every day, drat it!). So, it's worthwhile, but won't take you up to the very latest research.

Do I recommend it? Yes. The caveats are really very minor, and I'm no longer complaining that kids get all the best books (This one has pictures, too! There's a nice chunk of color photos in the center).


  1. This sounds awesome! I am so bummed my library system doesn't have a copy. I've read a few brief online articles about the octopus nervous system/brain and it is so unfamiliar I have trouble comprehending. I bet this book would help me out with that.

    1. It was very good.

      I've put Octopus! by Katherine Harmon on hold at my library & am looking forward to it.