The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

A year or so ago, I briefly started mailing books to people: environmentally minded books from British Columbia, to colleagues and friends outside of BC who were unlikely ever to come across them on their own. The program was a casualty, unfortunately, of a seriously full schedule coupled with an unwillingness to use automated reminders to help me get things done consistently, and after only a half-dozen, somehow it all faded away.

Not long after, though, the brilliant and thoughtful Pamela Banting mailed me, unsolicited, Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Now that I've read this wee volume, I'm inspired to restart my one-man Reader's Clearing House, because it's just a remarkable treat, Bailey's book.

And yes, it really is -- partly, anyway -- about the sound a wild snail makes while it eats.

Image borrowed from Helen Explains It All
In brief, Bailey spent a few years largely bedridden from an illness or illnesses that went undiagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed for some time, recurring intensely over the course of some 20 years. Forced to abandon her beloved forest property in Maine for a bed in the city, where she couldn't sit up even to look out a window, so unwell that she had to travel to her doctor while lying down, she felt completely isolated from the world: not just the natural world, or the world we experience through the senses, but even the imagined world, because she didn't have the strength to think.

In the depth of this illness, Bailey receives a gift of field violets, a pot of living plants. The violets aren't the actual gift, though, because Bailey's friend is handing them over only as an environment for a snail that she'd noticed while walking a forest path near where Bailey was convalescing. At first Bailey finds the notion of such a gift overwhelming, because she has no energy whatever to spare, but very rapidly, she comes to find the snail's wandering and activities so compelling as to consume all of her attention.

The book shifts back and forth between a dispassionate depiction of extreme illness, which turns out to be chronic fatigue syndrome, combined with and/or prompted by other conditions, and a passionate explication of the biological marvel that is a snail. It's full of delighted facts about snails and molluscs (2640 teeth! snails can eat paper! they sometimes nurse their eggs!), and Bailey's health remains only a background concern, though a persistent one. In other words, it's a book about health and self-help, that's hardly at all about either of those things; it's about meditation without any Chopra-isms anywhere, hurrah, about one's own illness without an ounce of self-pity or -congratulation, huzzah, and as such it's one that I can get behind for a change. Still, the book really is about this one snail, and the snail's not a metaphor or symbol, or not only that. Come for the self-help if you like, as it's a valuable book about health, but stay for the snail.

Bailey's snail exists at a pace that she could keep up with, and one of the book's great beauties is that it makes you slow down as well. I've seen plenty of reviews online from readers who said they couldn't help reading the book all at once, or in one day, and certainly it's possible to do this, but good lord, people, you're doing it all WRONG. Savour this book; read with something like the pace of Bailey's discovery and recovery; a snail doesn't gallop (the loathsome Turbo notwithstanding), and it's such a beautifully written book that you should want to extend its reading as long as you can.

Such a joy, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: essential reading for pretty much everyone, I'd say, but especially for anyone capable of slowing down, and anyone with a connection to a person with a long illness.

I wonder which book I'll mail out next, and to whom....


theresa said…
I loved this book...

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