The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010)

book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I’ve lost my notes on which friend first recommended this to me many years ago, but I owe them my thanks. The first time you pick it up, you might think you will speed through this lovely little (just 120 pages) book, but if you are like me you will find yourself deliberately slowing down to savor Bailey’s luminous prose and gentle but keen insights into the natural world — as exemplified by the common woodland snail who takes up residence alongside the author during a year of her life when illness keeps her completely bedridden. Here’s a sample:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

The little snail who so preoccupies Bailey’s attention is first brought to her inside a pot of wild violets from a friend. At first, she frets about being responsible for the snail when she cannot care for herself without help. It doesn’t take her long to realize that when you are so ill that even sitting up in bed is an impossible task without help, being able to focus attention on something that lives at a similar pace can distract you from your own loneliness and isolation.

Along the way, Bailey turns her attention to exploring the changes — physical, mental, emotional — her illness has wrought in her.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin, how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought at all to snails beyond the restaurant scene in the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts sends an escargot flying across a posh dining room. Bailey provides a surprising amount of factual data about snails in her little book; you might think it would be too much except that in Bailey’s hands it becomes compelling. (One of the first things I did when finishing the book was to fire up the internets and check out some images of snails, since I don’t think I had ever really looked at one before. They really are quite interesting little critters.)

The final jewels in the book’s crown are the epigrams that open each chapter. It turns out that the most astonishing variety of writers have contemplated the lowly snail far more than I ever had. Charles Darwin was not a surprise, of course, but Patricia Highsmith?! It turns out the masterful author of psychological thrillers like The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels wrote not one but two short stories about snails! (Of course, being Patricia Highsmith, one of the stories is about giant carnivorous snails.) I’m tempted to raid the library in hopes of discovering more literary gold carried on the backs of this unassuming creature.

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