"If we and the rest of the backboned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the land's ecosystems would collapse."
David Attenborough

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sympathy for Snails

Book review; “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by E.T. Bailey
This is the second book review to appear on Mollusc POW and it wont be the last. I hope you readers are finding them of interest.
I have been yearning for years for a book to be written which finally does justice to snails. Something which would bridge the yawning gulf between the often obtuse science of malacology and the everyday experience people can have with land snails. A book which basically ‘sells’ snails to the masses and establishes them as the unforgettable lead characters in the ecological epic being played out in nature. A book which comes but rarely and penetrates the cultural life of people of all types, not simply nature-nerds or popular-science fans. 
“The Sound of Wild Snail Eating” was not that book, and I found it hard to set my feelings of unreasonable disappointment aside as I read it. I was of course completely unfair- Bailey never set out to deliver a molluscan version of “A Brief History of Time”. She instead  has crafted a neat package of malacological/biographical essays which have two themes at their core: her personal experience of suffering a degenerative neuro-skeletal illness, and the doings of a snail which hitch-hiked into her bedside in a pot plant. 
Some reviewers have railed against the malady-focused content, harshly accusing Bailey of self-indulgence and irrelevance. I agree up to a point: “my illness” stories are usually only of any interest to the afflicted themselves. At times I found myself skipping paragraphs of medical content to get to the nourishing molluscan meat whilst cursing Bailey’s editor for not ruling with an iron fist. But not everyone is quite as misanthropic as myself so perhaps some readers out there will find this part of the narrative of interest? I wonder if the problem with this book is simply one of marketing- it may have achieved less criticism were it sold as a human-interest story with good mollusc content, rather than as a piece of molluscan nature-writing with lots of subjective medical content shoehorned in. 
The actual snail-centered content is quality stuff. Although based in the USA, Bailey neatly avoids the parochiality which often infects American nature writing. The discussion of her personal journey from snail-ignoramus to snail-disciple is compelling. She clearly took the time to dig hard in search of background information on snails- the big-picture stuff about their evolution and biology, as well as the thoughts on matters molluscan from science giants such as Darwin which can be so hard to find casually. You may find some of her content slightly twee, but not disastrously so. Occasionally she does drift into relating factoids which have an inauthentic parroted quality to them, but who among us could do anything else when explaining the deuterostome/protostome split in the tree of life? The details of that obscure moment back in the Cambrian Era at which the molluscan and our own evolutionary heritage appear to diverge gives me headaches and I have struggled to explain it in my own words on several occasions. The real strength of the book for me is that she has a sympathy for the animals themselves as individuals which I strongly share yet is starkly missing from other works on the subject. On the whole Bailey does a good job of expressing the admiration she came to feel for her gastropod companion I can only hope that this moves the casual reader to look again at some of the smaller yet remarkable creatures we share our world with.
In conclusion I would say that “The Sound of Wild Snail Eating” is certainly an important tome in the regrettably small canon of popular (ie.non-specialist) writings on molluscs. It may have a future as a ‘gateway’ text, a book you loan to a potential new recruit to snail-fan-dom who would not be hooked-in by other, drier, fact-avalanche-styled efforts. It will also while away a few hours while you wait for the mollusc book to be written…

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