There’s a breathless, glib, jokey writing style that plagues popular nonfiction. It betrays an insecurity on the part of the author (or the editor) th...moreThere’s a breathless, glib, jokey writing style that plagues popular nonfiction. It betrays an insecurity on the part of the author (or the editor) that the subject matter is not interesting as it is, and so must be constantly sold to the reader.
Courage’s Octopus! has many problems, starting with that exclamation point, but this is the main one: a prose style that is supposed to be breezy, but sounds kind of like a local newspaper column and kind of like a commercial. Here you’ll find a superabundance of words that an adult should be borderline embarrassed to employ (stinky, scary, gosh darn, gazillion); of pop-culture references to movies and comic books; of bad jokes (“no cephalopod-composed sonnets have ever been found” –p70); and of sentences like: “All in all, the few extant cephalopods make a cozy little class” (p63)—annoyingly twee sentences devoid of content.
We get a lot of wasted time on nods towards, rather than analysis of, octopuses in pop culture (the last extant record of that Spirit movie we have all tried to forget is in this book); on personal accounts of “the day I went on a boat”; on things “inspired by” octopuses. Statements are vague and backed up with phrases that would be flagged by wikpedia as weasel words: “Some contend…” (p68) — who contends? “Some researchers…” (p101) — which ones? And speaking of researchers, how do you get your interviewees to sound alike, anyway? On p105, Richard Baraniuk says, “That’s complicated, man—super, super complicated”; one page later, Naomi Halas says she seeks to create something that’s “good—super, super good—at blending.”
This is a little suspicious, but it’s not like I necessarily want a pop book about octopuses to be a rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific text. I just want read about octopuses without someone trying to sell me on the fact that the “incredibly efficient” (p73) octopus has “stunning adaptations” (p77) and “amazing assets” (p83). On p86, the phrase “flashy flesh” comes one sentence after “squid soliloquy.”
It’s almost like Courage runs her prose through a filter that feeds her sentences a diet of sports drinks and cocaine, until they are so breathless and action packed that they demand to be read in the voice of a Spike TV announcer. What else could explain writing like: “...even back in the 1940s the Marshall Plan lobbed a hunk of money over to Naples, Italy, to see if a lab there could crack the code of the cephalopod brain” (p7)?
If you manage to notice, as the words streak past, the lack of specifics in this sentence—if you manage to ask which lab, or what part of the Marshall plan, or how much is a hunk, or when in the ’40s, or what does cracking a brain code really mean—then the smoke and mirrors will fail to have done their job. But it’s all smoke and mirrors, and there’s very little here.(less)