cover image The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Ocean

The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Ocean

Cynthia Barnett. Norton, $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-65144-7

Seashells—and the mollusks that grow them—are a potent force in nature and society, writes journalist Barnett (Blue Revolution) in this riveting survey. “From the shell cults of prehistory to the impressive number of mollusk-inspired Pokémon characters,” Barnett writes, “no creatures have stirred human admiration... as intimately,” and in a globe-trotting quest, she visits sometimes unexpected places where shells appear: In England, the White Cliffs of Dover are made from ancient shell deposits, while a pre-Columbian Peruvian temple has still-playable horns made from conches. Cowrie shells, meanwhile, were an early-modern global currency, and writers including Edna St. Vincent Millay and Italo Calvino were shell-obsessed. Barnett also covers the contemporary collapse of mollusk populations from overharvesting, pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change. There’s much quaint and curious lore, and she proves shelled animals are surprisingly adventurous (cone snails spear fish with their poisonous proboscis, for example). Throughout, Barnett delivers the goods with erudition and evocative prose: Scallops, she observes, are “jet-propelled, zigzagging, shell-clapping, free spirits... the eye rows glow battery-charge blue, like tiny flying saucers have landed in the seagrass.” The result is an entertaining, colorful tour of a surprisingly dynamic part of nature. Agent: Elise Capron, Sandra Dijkstra Literary. (July)