The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I started this book with a bunch of trepidation because of the strange title. Who would have thought of a story about a snail? Who would have thought that watching a snail go about its daily life would help someone get through a devastating illness? Who, also, would have completed so much excessive factual research into a small, relatively insignificant animal?

I mean, how interesting can a snail be? Entirely captivating, as it turns out. Enjoying reading the book slowly, I found that perhaps there’s something to be said for moving at a snail’s pace. I found the book to be a fascinating glimpse into the life of an animal most of us ignore or even dislike, and ended up with a new-found appreciation for a miraculous little creature that I never thought much about before — except that I hated them eating my hostas every Spring. 

In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s account of her uncommon encounter with a common woodland snail (she never gave it a name) when she is bedridden with a mysterious pathogen she contracted during a trip to Europe. She withstood long months unable to even turn over in bed without exhausting herself, spending those months in a room with a window she couldn’t see out of and surrounded by plain white walls.

But, one day a friend brings her a pot of wild violets with—of all things—a snail in it. The mere idea of the responsibility for this is almost overwhelming for Elizabeth, but the quiet, slow, peacefulness of the snail gradually wins her over. What started as a bizarre unwanted gift became her main focus and companion.

Spending long hours watching the snail, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal. She found that a snail’s world is far more interesting than one might imagine as they get by with only three senses—smell, taste, and touch. She became fascinated and intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, clear decision making, hydraulic (slimy) locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities (e.g. Romantic encounters between a pair of snails can take up to seven hours from start to finish!)

Set over the course of one year, she and the snail share an intimate journey of survival and resilience. With a naturalist’s curiosity, and told with wit and grace, Bailey delves into a wealth of gastropod literature, filling her chapters with fascinating mollusk biology (They have thousands of teeth! They can mate with themselves!)

Author Bailey reminds us that every living creature is here for a reason. Her book is well-written and is one of those sleeper books that could become a classic. The only thing that would have made it better would have been color photographs.

— Kenn Johnson

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