Last summer, on a whim , I took the book the Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books 2010) from the Beverly Library. On my own, without kids or pressing work, I sat in my car under the shade of a maple by the library parkinglot and read the entire tome. I was transported into Bailey’s world of chronic illness, where given a snail on a small violet plant, she crafts for herself a tiny microcosm of nature and studies it. One woodland snail comforts her as she lies on her bed most of the time, stricken by a rare condition in which her body is not able to adjust to sitting or standing upright. As she navigates the losses and changs this illness brings to her active life, Bailey is drawn into the world of the small and slow moving. The eating, hiding, and eventual reproduction of her snail bring her joy . As she recovers slowly from the most debilitating effects of illness, Bailey holds herself between two worlds.- connected to the fast paced mammal world by people and books, and tied to the cold blooded slower paced world of the snail through her observations and her own physical limitations. As she notices the tiny snail, Bailey ponders both the wonder of snail and the what it means to be human.
The book is reminiscent of the Diving Bell and Butterfly by french journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby (Vintage International 1997) . In that book, Bauby describes the experience of locked-in syndrome, in which he can only control one eye, and communicates by blinking. While Bailey has more abilities than Bauby, the severe contraints her illness places on her life force her to a similar degree of deliberateness and observation. What makes the Bailey’s book unusual, however, is the other topic- snails, and the degree of natural history. If you were ever that kid squatting to watch a line of ants, or poking a berry with a stick only to be startled by the sight of a snake coiled ever so carefully in the raspberry canes, or that child who had a drawer full of rocks and bones, and the broken shells of robin’s eggs, if in fact, you love to just know some little fact about a creature that makes it different and interesting- you will like learning about snails. I was such a child, and assume many people are. I loved the beauty, wonder, and humor that Bailey brings to the book. Hope you like it!