The best books on the ways that animals redeem us

Who am I?

Ever since I was a child, sitting on fallen logs in the forest and making notes on the wildlife, I have been an admirer of animals and their mysteries. That animals feel pain, fear, and affection is obvious, and while we are warned against anthropomorphism, I think the greater mistake is in limiting them to the range of human feelings. I am especially intrigued with the subject of consciousness, believing that all creatures possess their own version of it. In studying the cognizance of other beings, we become better humans, more aware of the unity of all living things. While we have no idea how far we can go in our understanding of animal behavior, it is thrilling to consider the possibilities of this frontier.

I wrote...

Survival Skills: Stories

By Jean Ryan,

Book cover of Survival Skills: Stories

What is my book about?

The characters who inhabit Jean Ryan’s graceful, imaginative collection of stories are survivors of accidents and acts of nature, of injuries both physical and emotional. Ryan writes of beauty and aging, of love won and lost—with characters enveloped in the mysteries of the natural world and the animal kingdom.

In “Greyhound,” a woman brings home a rescued dog for her troubled partner in hopes that they might heal one another—while the dog in “What Gretel Knows” is the keeper of her owner’s deepest secrets. In “Migration,” a recently divorced woman retreats to a lakefront cabin where she is befriended by a mysterious Canada goose just as autumn begins to turn to winter. As a tornado ravages three towns in “The Spider in the Sink,” a storm chaser’s wife spares the life of a spider as she anxiously waits for her husband to return. And in “A Sea Change,” a relationship falls victim to a woman’s obsession with the world below the waves.

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The books I picked & why

Turtle Diary

By Russell Hoban,

Book cover of Turtle Diary

Why did I love this book?

Turtle Diary is one of my all-time favorite books. The intimate tone pulls the reader in immediately. Hoban alternates point of view between William and Neera, two lonely Londoners who accomplish a heroic feat and manage to rescue themselves in the process. The writing is spare and beautiful, peppered with delightful asides and observations: “She had a theatre programme in her hand, fresh air and perfume had come in with her. Her blonde hair and leopardskin coat looked as if they’d go out even if she stayed at home.”

By Russell Hoban,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Turtle Diary as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two lonely Londoners bond over a plan to free the sea turtles at the city zoo in this touching novel from a cult-favorite author who has drawn comparisons to J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut.

A wise and touching classic that “crackles with witty detail, mordant intelligence and self-deprecating irony,” from the author of Riddley Walker (Time)

Life in a city can be atomizing, isolating. And it certainly is for William G. and Neaera H., the strangers at the center of Russell Hoban’s surprisingly heartwarming novel Turtle Diary.
William, a clerk at a used bookstore, lives in a rooming house after…

Book cover of Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

Why did I love this book?

In Sightings, Sam Keen lays a gentle hand on your shoulder and invites you to share in his love affair with birds. From the Indigo Bunting to the Lord God bird, he describes his various encounters, weaving bits of his own history with illuminating glimpses into the avian realm. This slim volume is beautifully illustrated with paintings by Mary Woodin and venerable quotes, reminding us that the world, viewed up close, is a sacred place designed for those with open hearts.

By Sam Keen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sightings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In twelve interwoven essays, Sam Keen, the "New York Times" best-selling author of "Fire in the Belly", shares moments of spirituality and insight that he's experienced while bird watching. Keen has been blessed with moments of beauty that he interprets with wit, wisdom, and a bit of down-home philosophy. From his childhood ramblings in the Tennessee wilderness to a heartbreaking drive through Arizona to a stroll on the shore of Lake Michigan on his 70th birthday, here are meditations on such universal ideas as friendship, the nature of the soul, and the disappointment that comes with getting exactly what you…

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

By Elisabeth Tova Bailey,

Book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

Why did I love this book?

As soon as it was published, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating became a classic. No one had ever written about the lowly snail with such tenderness and respect. Stricken by a mysterious illness and confined to her bed, Elisabeth Tova Bailey is gifted with a woodland violet. Inside the pot, Bailey discovers a snail, which she begins to study minute by minute. What she learns about her guest--how it moves, eats, sleeps, and reproduces--will forever change your perspective on this common mollusk. Her writing is gorgeous and addictive, transporting us to a miniature world that mirrors our own daily struggles.

By Elisabeth Tova Bailey,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

While an illness keeps her bedridden, Elisabeth Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence in a terrarium alongside her bed. She enters the rhythm of life of this mysterious creature, and comes to a greater understanding of her own confined place in the world. In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, she shares the inspiring and intimate story of her close encounter with Neohelix albolabris - a common woodland snail.

Intrigued by the snail's world - from its strange anatomy to its mysterious courtship activities - she becomes a fascinated and amused…

Book cover of The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

Why did I love this book?

The Soul of an Octopus follows Sy Montgomery’s journey into an underwater world of secrets and surprises. As a guest at the New England Aquarium, she is privileged to study the giant Pacific octopus, an animal whose intelligence and canniness we are only beginning to understand. Montgomery often has the feeling that the octopuses she observes are evaluating her with equal curiosity, reaching out with several arms to touch and smell her skin. Meeting their gaze makes her think “of the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses: serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.” Acknowledging that we will likely never know what an octopus--or any animal--is thinking, the author is left with a sweeping respect for this highly sensitive and multi-faceted creature.

By Sy Montgomery,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Soul of an Octopus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus does for the creature what Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk did for raptors' New Statesman
'Charming and moving...with extraordinary scientific research' Guardian
'An engaging work of natural science... There is clearly something about the octopus's weird beauty that fires the imaginations of explorers, scientists, writers' Daily Mail

In 2011 Sy Montgomery wrote a feature for Orion magazine entitled 'Deep Intellect' about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death. It went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. Since…

Book cover of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Why did I love this book?

Beyond Words is one of the most compelling books you will ever read. Carl Safire is graced with the ability to present stunning facts in a beautiful and seemingly effortless manner. Besides a trove of knowledge, what you take away after reading this masterpiece is the certainty that every species on this planet is related and deserving of attention. Reading about the complex behaviours of the animals he features, we find ourselves asking the same questions the author poses: What do you feel? What are you communicating? What is it like to be you?

By Carl Safina,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Beyond Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


I wanted to know what they were experiencing, and why to us they feel so compelling, and so close. This time I allowed myself to ask them the question that for a scientist was forbidden fruit: Who are you?

Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina's landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and animals. Travelling to the threatened landscape of Kenya to witness struggling elephant families work out how to survive poaching and drought, then on to Yellowstone…

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