Algonquin Books were generous enough to send me a copy of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, a bedridden observer of nature who is given a snail in a pot of violets and decides to keep it as a pet. The illness that Bailey experiences makes it extremely difficult for her to sit up even for seconds at a time. This terrible turn of events in Bailey’s life results in a small blessing in which she is given large amounts of time to observe the snail and conduct research on it, resulting in this magical book about one of nature’s tiniest wonders.
Another book came to mind when reading this, The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson. Both books have the ability to transfer the reader to a specific place and/or time in nature and to me, there is no other more relaxing subject matter to read. Bailey tells us what she sees, but she also gives an explanation by referring to Darwin, Dawkins and many more so we get to hear Bailey’s account of what the lip of the snail’s shell looks like where it connects to the body, but then we learn why it is shaped that way. It is more than a book about an illness and an observation, but a book about natural history.
Most interesting to me is the explanation and description of the cupid’s arrow courtship ritual. Bailey did not see this herself since she only had one snail but she learned about it through her readings and shares her information with us. She writes, “The ‘love darts’ Durrell describes are tiny, beautifully made arrows of calcium carbonate, and they look as if they’ve been crafted by the very finest of artisans. They are formed inside the body of the snail over the course of a week and can be as much as one-third the length of the shell.” Amazing! I’m not sure why knowing this information changed my life, but in a way it is cool to know strange and cryptic Jeopardy-question type of facts just for our own personal enrichment. Of course if I bring up in casual conversation at work that snails shoot homemade darts at each other before making love it will only renew everyone’s assumption regarding my mental status but what is important is that I know this information and it has made my own existence in this world more enjoyable.
You do have to admit while reading this book that Bailey’s situation is sad. Imagine going from perfectly healthy thirtysomething year-old to bedridden and unable to sit up. Although the last thing Bailey wants her reader to do is to feel sorry for her (she focuses more on the snail than her own illness) it would have been nice to go a little deeper into her psychological process. I understand this is difficult for some people to do and Bailey wanted the book to be about the snail and not about her but with a little more explanation this book could have been the best self-help book of all time. Bailey talks about the similarities between the lone snail and it’s hermit life and her own. As the illness progresses, more and more people stay away, eventually causing Bailey to feel as though she no longer exists, but is only a ghost or a shell of herself. I think a lot of people who are bedridden can relate and would appreciate a book like this.
I give Bailey a lot of credit for being able to turn a devastating situation into something as lovely as this book. It would be very easy to give up on life, or nature in general. To become absorbed in the television and to lose oneself in the vast mindlessness that is cable television. But she doesn’t do that, she stays true to what she knows and loves which is the natural world and then shares it with millions of readers. What a gift she has given us.
My only disappointment with this book is its length. It’s short (I read it over Labor Day weekend, in a matter of hours) and seems to only scratch the surface. One might ask, “Well, how long can you talk about a gastropod before it becomes a textbook?” True, but as mentioned above, I would have liked to have learned more about Bailey, but also more about the snail. I would have liked to have kept reading longer. Maybe somebody can convince her to write another by offering up another pot of violets, this time with two snails on board.
I am sending this book (US only please) to one random person who comments below. Winner will be chosen Sunday, September 19th and notified via email.