Book Review – Octopus! By Katherine Harmon Courage

Title: Octopus!  (The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea)
Author: Katherine Harmon Courage
Format: 
Paperback
Published: 
2013

Octopus! is not surprisingly a nonfiction book about octopuses.  (I picked up a free ARC copy.)  Subcategorizing it beyond nonfiction is a little tricky.  It’s sort of a snapshot of our historical, culinary, cultural, fictional, and scientific relationship with the octopus.  Katherine Harmon Courage is a journalist and an associate editor at Scientific American.  So there’s a good portion of the book which focuses on the biology and science of the octopus, but there’s almost as much time spent on what we don’t know about them as what we do.

As a personal preference, I like my nonfiction a bit drier than this book.  I felt there was way too much time spent on Katherine’s traveling misadventures to meet various fishermen and researchers, and I got a little bored with the constant variations on “Isn’t that cool/icky/strange/interesting!?!”

However, for other people this might be a nice break from a textbook rattling off a dry list of facts.  There is something interesting about stepping back from a stack of figures and looking at the messy, imprecise side of trying to gather more precise data.

If you’d like to know more about the octopus (or are just looking for idea fodder for a hard science fiction tale) this may be a good gateway book.  At 220 pages, it’s not a super long or intense read, but it does offer up a lot of stimulating food for thought on everything from our perspective on other species to the weird economics of food exportation to robotics.  And there’s an extensive list of source material in the back if you want some drier reading. Courage certainly did her research.

If you’re a hardcore animal rights advocate, you may feel a bit of outrage at sampling a live octopus meal at a Korean restaurant, and if you’re not, you may still feel a bit squeamish during a few passages.  It’s not a book designed to shock, but neither does it hold back on raw realities of octopus life or octopuses in our lives.  (Yes, she briefly covers hentai.)

I’ll give it a solid 4 out of  5, since I think the book accomplishes what it sets out to do.  I can’t say it’s a must read.  Just kind of nice, kind of interesting, and while there’s a certain deliberate messiness to the presentation, it does cover a lot of fascinating ideas.

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