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 – May 17th Edition

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

This week I continued to make progress in my reading stack.

I worked through Chapter 1 of A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe. This is a fascinating read so far. Each chapter digs into the math and mystery of the numbers 1 through 10. Chapter 1 is all about the number one, or the monad.

In the first chapter, the geometer’s tools – the compass, the straightedge and the pencil are described. My excitement to try out the compasses in my new geometry tool kit (it came with three!) seems inadequate compared to the fact that:

“The Medieval geometers contemplated the compass as an abstract symbol of the eye of God.” A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe

Even the simple task of sitting down with tools to make the most basic of shapes, the circle, carried a greater significance.

“Pencil and paper translate divine, eternal ideas into symbols accessible to the geometer’s sight.” A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe

The monad, the circle, also represents the cyclic nature of everything, from the simplest to most complex biological system, even to the rock cycle.

This part of my reading tied into another title I am working on, The Fourth Turning.

This book is examing in great detail the cyclic nature to historical events. The authors discuss this concept of a circle of time, the wheels of time, with each cycle:

“represented by a circle, symbolizing perfect and unbreakable recurrence. Nearly every primitive or archaic society came to see sacred time as rounded.” A Fourth Turning

Much of the book (so far as I can tell being four chapters in) covers the saeculum, the recurring cycle of history that runs the average length of a lifetime (approximately 100 years). The saeculum is divided into four parts, represented by four generations within the hundred years.

“Roughly once every twenty years, America discovers a new generation – a happenstance triggered by some striking event in which the young people appear to behave in ways manifestly different than the youth who came just before.” A Fourth Turning

This is a fascinating book, but it is packed with information and details – thankfully there are a lot of tables to help keep things straight – so I am moving through it slowly.

This week I let myself enjoy some lighter fiction reads. I finished up Waking Gods, the follow up to last year’s Sleeping Giants. I enjoy epistolary novels – and this would fall into this category. The chapters are mostly transcripts between an unnamed man who is quite influential in a shadow government sort of way (think Cigarette Smoking Man in X Files…) and the main characters, or transcripts of mission logs.

It is an interesting writing style. You don’t get descriptions or details to animate the story in your head, other than what you can glean from the transcript conversations. This might seem like a limitation, but somehow it just “works.”

I see that there are audio book performances of both books now, which could be a lot of fun, since the one complaint I have about how the author formats his transcripts is the lack of speaker notation (who is saying what), the back and forth in conversations are really just distinguished by hyphens. Usually I can follow pretty well, but on occasion if I leave a chapter and come back, I have to orient myself again to the conversation to see who is saying what. An audible performance wouldn’t have this problem.

I also started back up my reading in the Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh, reading Conspirator. This long-running series has several trilogies and a new book is about to be released. I’m two trilogies behind and working to catch up. It is very easy for me to get totally immersed in her writing though, so I am pacing myself. I definitely had a couple of rough mornings this past week as I had to read just one.more.chapter.

Current Reads:

 

In Common: May 10th Edition

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

This has been a hectic week at home, and so I haven’t made as much progress, page wise, as I had planned for my weekly schedule. But I did manage to make significant progress in my fiction read, Waking Gods, and got off to a good start with A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe.

This week I worked through the Introduction in A Beginner’s Guide, and it was pretty awesome.

This is also not just a book for reading, but for doing. I have ordered a geometry set to use as I work through the book (and my kid’s aren’t allowed to touch it!). I know we have compasses and set squares for use in our math lessons, but I want a set all my own, for my own scholarship.

“Both Pythagoras and Plato suggested that all citizens learn the properties of the first ten numbers as a form of moral instruction.” A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe

I am finding this book goes along well with my other read, The Fourth Turning, which examines recurring cycles that occur in human history.

“When the lessons of symbolic or philosophical mathematics seen in nature, which were designed intro religious architecture or art, are applied functionally (not just intellectually) to facilitate the growth and transformation of consciousness, then mathematics may rightly be called “sacred.” A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe

 Most of my May reads are my “slow and steady” titles, but I have The Beginner’s Guide, as well as a couple of fiction reads I hope to get to this month.

Current Reads: