My book club read Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating for its February discussion. I suggested the book after downloading and reading the Kindle preview. The odd title snared my interest (and garnered odd looks and quizzical emails from my book club), but the book itself is surprisingly engaging.
The Kindle edition is free from errors and includes all of the adorable snail illustrations from the print edition. The physical book is gorgeous—perfect for a gift—with deckle edge pages and excellent paper.
This is an unusual little book—it’s part memoir and part popular science tome. The bookstores, it seems, were also a little confused about where to shelve it. Some book club members found it in Self Help, others in Nature, others in New Releases. I actually found it by doing a search for The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise (which I must read) on Amazon and scrolling down the list of results (why this book would be in the results, I’m not sure, because it has nothing to do with towers, zoos, nor tortoises). Still, the crazy title hooked me and I was off and reading.
During the course of a mysterious illness that leaves her bedridden and essentially immobile, the author receives an unusual gift from a friend—a wild snail scooped up from the forest floor and deposited into a pot of field violets. Bailey was flummoxed. She writes:
Why, I wondered, would I enjoy a snail? What on earth would I do with it? I couldn’t get out of bed to return it to the woods. It was not of much interest, and if it was alive, the responsibility—especially for a snail, something so uncalled for—was overwhelming.
Bailey soon finds herself unwittingly observing the snail’s nightly explorations of the pot (and eventually the room at large). As Bailey realizes, she and the snail are kindred spirits—they are both surviving on “altered landscapes”—she in her illness, and the snail out of its natural environment. She eventually starts to feed the snail (after realizing that the creature has been nibbling on letters), and will ultimately build an atrium that it can explore without the danger of being squished. What Bailey doesn’t realize when she first receives the snail, is that it would help her through her illness and give her a deeper appreciation of life:
I could never have guessed what would get my through the past year—a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life . . . somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on . . .
Our previous book club selection was Eat, Pray, Love, which I disliked, partially because the author whined too much. I thought The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating would be similar, but it was thankfully free of sentimentality. I rarely read anything from Self Help because they tend to beat you over the head with Meaning and Purpose and Whatever Else. But this was just an interesting story about how one person overcame unfortunate circumstances partly from observing nature and sorting out her place in a chaotic universe. The author spends more time writing tidbits about snails, than she does lamenting her illness. The illness was certainly the backdrop for the story (we learn about her doctor’s visits), but the snail is the real star. I enjoyed Bailey’s elegant writing style and sharp, contemplative observations. The book itself was a breezy 200 pages, but I would have happily read for 200 more. I highly recommend The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating for anyone looking for an inspirational read without all the schmaltz.