Search This Blog

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

What a tiny treasure is The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating!  This is a memoir that has formerly active Elisabeth Bailey confined to bed without even the energy to sit up for any length of time.  Initially, the doctors don't know the cause of her illness, but what began with flulike symptoms turned into a "systemic paralysis-like weakness with life-threatening complications."

Bailey doesn't allow the book to be list of symptoms or complaints, but rather an emotional and spiritual journey.  Observing the tiny snail, which is about all that she can do, keeps her mind active and curious.  The snail, with its slow deliberate pace becomes both the perfect companion and metaphor.

One morning, Bailey notices a square hole in a scrap of paper; each morning revealed more square holes.  When the snail chewed a hole in a letter she had written, she began drawing arrows to the holes in her communications with the outside world with the note:  "Eaten by my snail."

Then she put some withered blossoms out for the snail.  In the evening, the snail awoke and began its exploration.  After investigating the blossoms, it began eating a petal:

"I listened carefully.  I could hear it eating.  The sound was of someone very small munching celery.  I watched, transfixed, as over the course of an hour the snail meticulously ate an entire purple petal for dinner.

The tiny, intimate sound of the snail's eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space."

I loved this short book.  I learned more about gastropods and the habits and sex lives of the Neohelix albolabris than I ever expected to know.  I learned more about patience and close observation than I'd ever thought about.  And about courage and perseverance...

The quotes the author uses from poets, scientists, and naturalists are so well-chosen, so apt:

"My wide wake shines, now it is growing dark.
I leave a lively opalescent ribbon:  I know this."   
                                                          - Elizabeth Bishop, form "Giant Snail," 1969

"at my feet
when did you get here?
                          -Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

"The [snail's] tentacles are as expressive as a mule's ears, giving an appearance of listless enjoyment when they hang down, and an immense alertness if they are rigid, as happens when the snail is on a march."
                    - Ernest Ingersoll, "In a Snailery," 1881

What a lovely, lovely little book this is.  Maybe my favorite of the year, and certainly one that I will include in all-time favorites.  I can't even explain why this tiny book touched me with such emphasis.

Nonfiction.  Memoir/ Natural Science.  2010.  178 pages + an excellent bibliography.


  1. Thank you for your nice comments on my entryway post... it's so nice to meet new blog friends! This book sounds so inspiring... who would have thought to write a book about a snail, especially from this viewpoint! I will have to look for it on Amazon...

  2. Amy - :) It is an unusual topic, but the author certainly managed to raise my knowledge of snails!

  3. That was such an interesting post. Animals can be such wonderful companions. A snail would be interesting indeed.

  4. Her dog was too much for her. She was unable to do much more than scratch his ears, but watching the snail and reading about gastropods was a perfect antidote for boredom.

  5. I really didn't know what to expect, but a few pages in, and I was hooked.

  6. Yours is the second good review of this book I have seen in as many days. I've had my eye on the book simply because the title is so interesting. It's nice to know what a good read it is!

  7. Stefanie - I can recommend it highly; it won't suit everyone, but I believe most people would be delighted with this book.

  8. This sounds absolutely lovely and goes immediately on the wish list. I collected snails as a child, fed them with salad. I like it that she develops such a contemplative side through her illness.

  9. Caroline - Watching the snail gave her an interest that surprised her and brightened her life. It is a beautiful little book.

  10. It sounds enchanting! I love memoirs and small maligned creatures, this will be right up my alley!

  11. Anne - It is strangely enchanting. I think my pulse actually slowed while reading. :) And yes, small maligned creatures can prove fascinating!