Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

An Appreciation

A small book with the improbable title The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was published in the late summer of 2010. It was written by an ME/CFS patient using the pen name Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who, by the nature of her illness, is forced to limit her contact with the outside world.

The Patient Advocate first saw this book in the hands of Dr. Joan Grobstein. As a result I have read it, and given it to various people for the Holidays. Every one of the recipients has expressed admiration for Bailey’s work.

A quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet begins Part 1 and sets the tone for the book:

"Try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now."

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is disarmingly simple but has a great reach. It is a book about observation and its implications - about gathering information from a small, seemingly insignificant source and looking for larger meaning. The work, while appearing to be the modest effort of a severely disabled individual, instead is comprised of powerful feelings and observations, proving that a story or poem or a piece of music does not have to be large to be emotionally profound.

The author of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was given a small woodland snail by a friend. At first mystified as to what possible purpose this gift could have, the bedridden author became curious about this other living being who was now a resident of her isolated world. Knowing nothing whatever of the nature of snails, she began, through observation, a "relationship" with the snail. The result is both an investigation of the world of snails and of chronic illness. The author cites various literary sources on snails as well as relying heavily on obscure nineteenth century scientific books on gastropods (stomach feet). She delves into dusty volumes, recording the habits of snails - their eating habits, locomotion, amorousness, strength, disguises and defenses, reproduction, and many other aspects of snail life.

Throughout the book the author's curiosity and thoughtfulness construct larger meanings from the simplest of events - the wonders of a snail in a terrarium. This book is part biography, part memory-play, part journal, part observational record, and part disease description as Bailey interweaves observations of her own physical state with gastropod lore. For a period of months the author describes, with self-deprecating modesty and humor, her snail observations and discoveries. Many of these cloak larger profundities, as the author draws parallels between the tiny habitat of the snail and the larger world. We learn all sorts of particulars about snails and their habits, as well as terms that we have never heard of: schneke, gastropods, radula, dextral, sinistral, pedal mucus, foot drinking, estivation, slime plates. Along the way the reader learns all one needs to know about slime.

While this book is ostensibly about a snail (or snails in general), it also includes finely expressed feelings describing the strange debilitating nature of this nasty illness, ME/CFS. To those unfamiliar with ME/CFS, these insertions of the disease reality might seem jolting, but to the initiated they will read as authentic and familiar . Alternating between elegant and humorous write ups of her observations and research, are the author’s personal revelations of the very nature of this dispiriting, restrictive illness and her methods for living with it. They are among the very best written. Bailey’s description of the process of receiving visitors for someone with ME/CFS, for example, is particularly moving and convincing.

Several other elements of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating are worth noting:

This erudite book is laced with small, significant quotes from Rilke, Billy Collins, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train), Edgar Allen Poe, John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Florence Nightingale and many others, thus revealing the author as a reader of great breadth and scope.

Bailey’s book is the product of a rigorous writing process: - paring down, compression, editing, and reduction make it a very powerful statement. At the end the author acknowledges the editorial help that she received. The result of this honing is a finely wrought, compressed and readable story line that contains just the essentials

On the back cover, in extremely small print, is this statement: "Author and publisher will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book to the Whittemore Peterson Institute and to a national conservation organization".

I highly recommend this book, and further recommend that the reader follow the advice of Thomas Mann of what to do when one finishes a good book: “Read it again.” The PA particularly recommends it as a gift for someone who knows little or nothing about ME/CFS, but is receptive and open to learning more. It is a splendid book.