A compelling history of seashells and the animals that make them, revealing what they have to tell us about nature, our changing oceans, and ourselves.
Seashells have been the most coveted and collected of nature’s creations since the dawn of humanity. They were money before coins, jewelry before gems, art before canvas.
In The Sound of the Sea, acclaimed environmental author Cynthia Barnett blends cultural history and science to trace our long love affair with seashells and the hidden lives of the mollusks that make them. Spiraling out from the great cities of shell that once rose in North America to the warming waters of the Maldives and the slave castles of Ghana, Barnett has created an unforgettable account of the world’s most iconic seashells. She begins with their childhood wonder, unwinds surprising histories like the origin of Shell Oil as a family business importing exotic shells, and charts what shells and the soft animals that build them are telling scientists about our warming, acidifying seas.
From the eerie calls of early shell trumpets to the evolutionary miracle of spines and spires and the modern science of carbon capture inspired by shell, Barnett circles to her central point of listening to nature’s wisdom—and acting on what seashells have to say about taking care of each other and our world.
About the Author
Cynthia Barnett is the author of three previous books, including Rain, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and named a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. She lives with her family in Gainesville, Florida, where she is also Environmental Journalist in Residence at the University of Florida.
The Sound of the Sea is a glorious history of shells and of those who have loved shells. It is a history of fascination and of shame. It stretches our capacity to absorb new knowledge. It is as complex, multichambered and beautiful as its subject, and if Barnett can awaken our sense of wonder, then perhaps there is hope for jump-starting our collective sense of responsibility toward the oceans and one another.
— Katharine Norbury, Washington Post
Will have you marveling at nature…Barnett’s account remarkably spirals out, appropriately, to become a much larger story about the sea, about global history and about environmental crises and preservation. — John Williams, New York Times Book Review
For anyone who's ever admired the ocean's most beautiful objects, this is a literal 'beach read' to treasure. — Ron Charles, CBS Sunday Morning
Fascinating…[The Sound of the Sea] explores topics ranging from colonialism to ocean acidification in connection to seashells.
— Jonathon Keats, Forbes
Enthralling…[A] fascinating history of the shellmakers and of the multitude of ways they have interacted with and shaped human beings. — Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
Magnificent…[Barnett] starts with wonder, imbues that with knowledge, and then alchemizes it all into awe, leaving the reader struck with a blow of revelation…If you're looking for a late-summer beach read, you couldn't possibly do any better than The Sound of the Sea.
— Jason Mark, Sierra
[An] arresting meditation on shells and ocean history. — Andrew Robinson, Nature
A lustrous meditation…Barnett’s richly detailed narrative is a celebration of how much we have valued mollusks in the past, how fascinating they are in the present, and how vital it is to insure their survival into the future. — Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History
This is not a scolding book; it's an awestruck travelogue and appreciation of something beautiful…With each page, Barnett's meticulous insights soon had me marveling with new appreciation. — Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon
A delightful, informative, and momentous read for both enthusiasts and readers who’ve never picked up a shell. — Library Journal (starred)
Riveting…[A]n entertaining, colorful tour of a surprisingly dynamic part of nature. — Publishers Weekly
Full of fascinating and important stories, vividly evoked. I was captivated by both the wonders of molluscan life and by the many unexpected ways that shells live at the center of human cultures. A must-read for anyone interested in the riches of the living Earth. — David George Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen
In the deeply researched tradition of Rachel Carson’s sea trilogy, Cynthia Barnett enchantingly weaves poetic musings with deep-seated conservation wisdom and ocean science. An instant classic of nature history—a science-driven work of literature full of seaside grandeur. — Douglas Brinkley, best-selling author of The Wilderness Warrior
Writing with clarity and heart, turning science into prose and history into useful knowledge, Cynthia Barnett has given us a book for the ages. The Sound of the Sea is timely and mind-opening, echoing voices from the wondrous world of shell-harbored creatures of the sea. She urges us to give them our ear in ways we never have before, for in this transitional age, their truth is our fate, their wisdom our answer, and their future our hope.
— Jack E. Davis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Gulf
The Sound of the Sea is as exquisite, many-chambered, and luminous as the shells Cynthia Barnett describes in her wild and hybrid book. It is a travelogue, a finely argued indictment of colonization and capitalism, a reanimation of scientists lost to the official narrative, and, most ringingly, the story of the way shells and the soft and vulnerable animals within them reflect back both the greatness of human ingenuity and the equally immense and rippling effect of human harm to the natural world. This song of mingled praise and warning left me shell-shocked, wonder-struck, utterly delighted.
— Lauren Groff, best-selling author of Florida
The Sound of the Sea is one of those rare, knockout books that has you gasping in surprise on every page. From the prehistoric to the present, seashells have suffused human life, from giving voice to ancient gods to spurring climate solutions today. Thank you, Cynthia Barnett, for honoring the gifts the mollusks have left us, and—like the conch shells that once called the faithful to worship—for giving them the voice to speak for the imperiled ocean.
— Sy Montgomery, best-selling author of The Soul of an Octopus