Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

In a recent Facebook book club discussion about science books, the book title The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, caught my attention. Intrigued, I found it on amazon and immediately ordered it for myself.

Though much of my reading in this season is focused on education philosophy, my background is in science, and I’m trying to make room in my reading schedule for more science titles. This book certainly fit the bill.

This book is part memoir, part natural history and biology of the snail. The author manages to find the perfect balance between the two.

“Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.” (p. 6)

Bailey writes about the year following a debilitating illness that left her unable to get out of bed or care for herself. Lying in bed was her existence, and even rolling over was a feat.

“It took time for visitors to settle down. They sat and fidgeted for a while, then slowly relaxed until a calmness finally spread through them. They began to talk about more interesting things. But halfway through a visit, they would notice how little I moved, the stillness of my body, and an odd quietness would come over them. They would worry about wearing me out, but I could also see that I was a reminder of all they feared: chance, uncertainty, loss, and the sharp edge of mortality. Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health.” (p. 40)

During the author’s convalescence, a visiting friend brings in a garden snail with a potted plant. As she watches the snail she becomes intrigued by its habits, and over the course of several months that the two are “roommates” she makes incredible observations.

“Several times I was lucky enough to see it grooming; it arched its neck over the curved edge of its own shell and cleaned the rim carefully.” (p. 33)

The author weaves scientific facts about snails, along with excerpts from a surprisingly vast collection of literature, poetry and natural history writing about snails, with details and reflections of her time being bedridden and isolated from the world.

“I found that every field, from biology and physiology to ecology and paleontology, was packed with insights on gastropods… Then I discovered the nineteenth-century naturalists, intrepid souls who thought nothing of spending countless hours in the field observing their tiny subjects. I also came across poets and writers who had each, at some point in their life, became intrigued with the life of the snail.” (p.40-41)

At the end of the book, we find out that while she has regained some independence, the effects of her illness linger. The release of her snail back to its natural habitat, followed by the release of one remaining offspring she had kept, was somewhat symbolic to her reentry, of a sort, back into the wider world.

“The snail had been a true mentor; its tiny existence had sustained me.” (p. 160)

This book is beautifully written, it is really just lovely. The book is a quick read, but it has a calm pace. And while there are scientific details in the book, it is not science heavy. Readers will gain an appreciation for their own health, as well as an appreciation for the simple garden snail, after reading this.

In Common – July 11th Edition

In Common is my weekly Commonplace roundup – notable quotes from the previous week, and current reading list.

I’ve got several titles I’m trying to finish up this month. I’ve been working on my school plans for the Fall, so my personal reading has really been pushed to the side these past few weeks. I’m behind schedule, as usual, so we’ll see if I reach my goals.

I couldn’t help myself – I added another book to the pile. I saw it recommended somewhere – maybe Goodreads or Instagram and started it this month. Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner – the author really breaks down the process of learning a new language – what works and doesn’t work.

Wyner stresses practicing recall for learning a new language – writing down or saying from memory what you have studied – rather than just studying over and over.

“When you study by reading through a list multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it.” (Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner)

Seems intuitive, but it’s a study skill that is applicable in any subject really. He recommends using flash cards, and specifically a study method called Spaced Repetition Systems – what the author refers to as flash cards on steroids.

Another point he stresses is to stop translating. So often our foreign language learning attempts have this middle step. If we are learning the word cat, we may see a picture of a cat, the English word CAT, and then the word we are learning, GATTO, as an example. But your brain has to go through this extra process of translating. It is more efficient to see the cat and learn the word gatto.

“By throwing away English, I could spend my time building fluency instead of decoding sentences word by word.” (Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner)

One more area the author stresses is the importance of learning proper pronunciation at the beginning – you don’t get bogged down with broken words (words that we think are pronounced one way but are actually pronounced another) and we also learn to distinguish between similar sounds, known as minimal pairs (the author use the examples of R and L in English for a native Japanese speaker – their ear isn’t trained to distinguish the R and L sounds as separate).

“If you have better listening comprehension, you’ll gain more vocabulary and grammar every time you hear someone speak your language.” (Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner)

One thing that I am loving about this book is the detail and research presented in this book. It’s not just a book of Do This, It Works! The author goes into a lot of detail of why and how it works. How our brains hear language and recall information. It’s very thorough.

I did manage to get in some other reading this week.

This week I have been working on the July chapter in The Life-giving Home. Sarah Clarkson writes about the importance of story in developing our own character.

“Literature is humanity’s ongoing conversation with itself about what it means to be human, to be good, to live with meaning.” (The Life-giving Home, Sally and Sarah Clarkson)

Sigh. There is my motivation for reading good books, and ensuring my children are surrounded by good books.

Speaking of good books – I’ve got a stack of books arriving over the next couple of weeks as I get ready for the new school year – I look forward to sharing our curriculum plans soon!

 

Current Reads: