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Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times Hardcover – February 14, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


A subtle and thoughtful book. . . Beautiful Souls gains much from its storytelling approach. It is rich in personal, circumstantial details that analytical thinkers in search of clear principles may overlook. (The Economist)

[Beautiful Souls] provides rich, provocative narratives of moral choice. . . In exploring [resisters'] courage, Press makes us wonder if we would have the strength to act against the crowd, and in so doing spread a bit of light in our dark times. (Michael S. Roth, The Washington Post)

An act of conscience describes an action motivated by loyalty to a conviction, but it usually requires the defiance of other loyalties. . . Press's real achievement in this short book is not in his research or analysis, but in his refusal to flinch from that disquieting fact. . . He knows that those who act bravely are all the more likely to feel anguished, since they know what's at stake. In some ways this book is a thoughtful gesture of support. That might sound like a small thing, but it's not. (Louisa Thomas, The New York Times Book Review)

What makes you eager to push this book into the hands of the next person you meet are the small, still moments, epics captured in miniature. . . Mr. Press's book is a hymn to the mystery of disobedience. (Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times)

An intelligent . . . examination of moral courage and its consequences. (Kirkus Reviews)

Press builds out his analysis via thick description. His portraits are finely sketched, and enriched by old-fashioned journalistic effort, drawing heavily on interviews with his protagonists and their families, colleagues, and acquaintances. What emerges is a portrait not of superheroes but of ordinary men and women, often ambivalent about their own roles, who see their acts of courage and resistance simply as what they 'had to do.' (Rosa Brooks, Bookforum)

What drives the unwilling executioners--those rare creatures brave enough to stand up for what is right in the face of real threat--is the question Mr. Press asks in this valentine to the human spirit . . . Some of these figures wonder if their individual actions have much power to reverse injustice. Mr. Press argues that "acts of conscience have a way of reverberating." Of course, they can do so only if people know about them; that is the service of this humane and absorbing book. (Ruth Franklin, The Wall Street Journal)

A collection of stories very well told, a biography of unlikely courage. (Michael Bond, The New Scientist)

Proving time and again that the boldest renegades are just regular people with independent minds --rather than dyed-in-the-wool radicals -- Beautiful Souls underscores dissent's populist potential. Acts of conscience, as Press puts it, 'have a way of reverberating.' (Hannah Levintova, Mother Jones)

Few of us will ever face a crisis of conscience of the magnitude that Press (Absolute Convictions, 2007) illuminates in this fascinating examination of courage, and yet who among us hasn't pondered how we would react when confronted with a profound moral or ethical dilemma? In placing the spotlight on four specific individuals, Press allows readers to place themselves amid controversial circumstances while he challenges the assumption that it takes an extraordinary individual to perform extraordinary deeds. There's the Swiss police captain who refuses, in 1938, to follow orders and expel Jewish refugees; the Serb who saves the lives of Croats during the Balkan War; the Israeli soldier who questions serving in occupied settlements; and finally the financial adviser who blows the whistle on a massive Ponzi scheme. Press argues that there is nothing saintly or particularly virtuous about these individuals, nor are they the rebellious sort we typically associate with social resistance. Rather than dismissing societal values, they hold these ideals--brotherhood, unity, diligence--as inviolable. The real question is why the rest of us don't. (Patty Wetli, Booklist)

In his latest, journalist Press (Absolute Convictions) explores what compels people to act according to their conscience when faced with a moral dilemma in dangerous circumstances. In 1938, a Swiss police captain allows Jewish refugees to cross into "neutral" Switzerland, defying orders that the border be closed. During the Balkan conflict, in 1991, a Serb disobeys his superiors to save the lives of Croats from his hometown, the war-torn city of Vukovar. A financial adviser in Houston loses her job when she refuses to sell a toxic product she rightly suspects of being a Ponzi scheme. In a particularly compelling vignette, an Israeli soldier in an elite military unit refuses to serve in the occupied territories during the second intifada. Drawing on research by psychologists, sociologists, political activists and theorists (such as Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt), and neuroscientists, Press reveals that the boldest acts of defiance are often made by ordinary people who regard the ideals and values of their societies to be inviolable. This thought-provoking and moving narrative highlights the different ways people react to moral quandaries and, at its best, makes us question the role our own passivity or acquiescence plays in allowing unconscionable acts to happen on our watch. (Publishers' Weekly (starred review))

Beautiful Souls helps us understand why a minority stands on principle when a majority fails. It's an important book for our time, about conscience, group pressures, ethics, and psyches, and a beautifully crafted one that never falls prey to simple answers about matters of conscience. (Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell)

Too often we think of courage only as something required to charge into gunfire or scale an icy peak. Eyal Press looks at courage of a different and far more important kind. His examples spread across decades and continents, and he is wise enough to know that it can take as much bravery to defy an unethical corporation as it does to resist a totalitarian regime. This is an important and inspiring book. (Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars and King Leopold's Ghost)

About the Author

Eyal Press is an author and journalist based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, The Raritan Review and numerous other publications. A 2011 Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, he is the author of Absolute Convictions, and a past recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 14, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374143420
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374143428
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #600,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Nathan Webster TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a powerfully well-written work, which begins with clear-cut moral examples and ends with an especially uncomfortable look at our own 'democratic' way of life.

I think we all firmly believe that if we had been in Germany in 1938, of course we would have stood up to Nazi Germany. Of course, 'we' would have been on the right side - even though history proves that millions of people happily chose to be on the wrong side. If we had lived in Mississippi in 1955, of course 'we' would have stood up for integration and equal rights.

We always believe that we're our own heroes and that when push comes to shove we'll make the right choice. But as author Eyal Press shows, that's the exception in our society. Press correctly points out that protesters, whistleblowers, etc., are often considered "self-indulgent;" since we have the RIGHT to protest, the naysayer's belief seems to be, then the actual ACT of protest is redundant.

His thesis is proven with Occupy Wall Street, for example. Instead of any respect for people willing to camp out and get beat up and teargassed by police, they got mocked and derided as unemployed, drug-addled hippies. It's got nothing to do with whether the protest is right-minded or not, but that the entire protest is belittled. But it goes both ways; Operation Rescue and Randall Terry - say what you want about them, they're committed - are mocked as religious fanatics outside society's mainstream.

Of course we mock the two groups - because if one or both is right, then it means the rest of us live complete lies. It's certainly more comfortable to be cynical and snarky, instead of admitting that we might voluntarily live in a system of total economic injustice and unfairness, while surrounded by the deaths of thousands of babies.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Indy Reviewer VINE VOICE on December 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Eyal Press' Beautiful Souls is a collection of 4 biographical sketches of those who made decisions to resist against morally questionable situations. While the sketches are both inspiring and saddening, Press makes the mistake of focusing a book on a fundamental question of "What made these people stand up for the right thing?" and then not attempting to answer it. While still a good read, the frustrating lack of work on motivation gives this 3 stars.

Press tells the tale of 4 people who did what they considered the right thing under trying circumstances - a Swiss border guard who smuggled Jews in against policy, a Serbian who misidentified Croats to save them from torture, an Israeli commando who refused to continue to protect what he felt were illegal settlements, and a broker who caught wind of a Ponzi scheme - walks the reader through their stories, and interviews the 3 living subjects. The stories themselves are both inspirational and saddening, since one conclusion about the consequences of such actions is a quote by a former Guantanamo Bay prosecutor: "(Individual dissenters) don't bring about change. You only bring pain on yourself." That seems to be one of the darker underlying themes, but the flip side is the other conclusion reached - that "(perhaps you achieve your) own salvation" from making the right moral choice.

What Press doesn't do as well is to answer his own initial question. While he does debunk some of the common stereotypes about those who make moral choices, ultimately he does a fairly poor job of explaining why these people in particular decided to stand up to a larger wrong.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Professor Emeritus P. Bagnolo VINE VOICE on November 21, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

I was in one sense inspired and in another frustrated by what I read in this wonderful little book, Beautiful Souls. I say "little book" not in the cliché', pompous manner in which some amateurs review films, but in the sense that the book is very short about 66,500 words. Small though it is, it was packed with the two emotions/factors in line one of this review.

I was inspired to know that there are more people on earth from time to time, which do the right thing, though they appear in dire short supply these days, much unlike our ancestors of "The Greatest Generation."

What I loved about this book were the examples of those people who threw precaution to the wind and followed their conscience, despite the dangers afoot for them, as the authors of Eyal Press' examine the following four examples of people of varying social status taking uncommon risks to carry out the demands upon them by their conscience not only for empathy, but actions which fulfill the needs of those in danger.

1)- Disobeying The Law: Paul Grüninger Commander Of State Police in St. Gallen Switzerland displays incredible courage in, "Disobeying The Law" by allowing Sanctuary to Jewish escapees from the Nazi Scourge in 1938.

2)- Defying The Group: In 1991 Revolution, Alecsander Jevtic', a Serb, in charge of identifying Croats seeking asylum, knowing full well that any Croats found would be murdered in the ensuing genocide, began passing them off, as Serb refugees.
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