Author Polly Morland on The Society of Timid Souls
I grew up in a house that was full of books. My mother was―and is―a compulsive buyer and reader of every kind of volume and these books were literally part of the fabric of our family life. There were shelves of them in every room, and doors were propped open with tomes, an uneven table leg here or there steadied with some paperback or other. As a small child, I used to create fantastical cities out of books. I began to read them too, discovering that very particular sort of sanctuary that can only be found in a book. And so perhaps it was inevitable that I began to think of writing a book of my own.
Not that I did anything about it for many years. I ended up in television, producing and directing documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 (UK), and the Discovery Channel. And there emerged a thread in my professional life that began increasingly to preoccupy me. Through my work, I frequently met and interviewed people who were apparently brave, or at least daring. I also periodically wound up in hairy situations with guns, criminals, or warring factions. Which perhaps should have shown me some mettle of my own, but actually achieved quite the reverse. Whether I was skimming the Colombian jungle in a Black Hawk or sitting in an inner-city diner after-hours with a crack-smoking gangster, I was more aware than ever of my own shortcomings in the courage department. I started to see bravery everywhere I looked. On all sides, people are touted as heroes, from soldiers to sportspeople, dissidents to TV talent show stars, their courage idiomatic and yet, it seems to me, far from understood. Here we are, I thought, living in a society racked by collective anxiety about everything from global terrorism to economic meltdown, and yet this is also an age more cosseted, more risk-averse than ever before. It is not only hard, I realized, to work out how to be brave these days, but also what bravery even means.
And then one day, I happened upon an old news story about an eccentric, and radical, group for stage-frightened musicians in wartime Manhattan. At once (and at last), I knew exactly what book it was that I wanted to write. The group had been called the Society of Timid Souls and together, in their own small way, they had learned to be brave. So, inspired by the Timid Souls, I did for me a rather bold thing. I quit my job. I packed a notebook and a voice recorder and I set out to discover what it really means to be brave in an age of anxiety. Are brave people somehow different from the rest of us? Or is courage something that you or I could learn?
Over the next two years, I encountered some truly amazing people: soldiers, conscientious objectors, bullfighters, firefighters, freedom fighters, terminal cancer patients, laboring mothers, big-wave surfers, free solo climbers, a tightrope walker, a bank robber, an opera singer, the guy who confronted a suicide bomber on the London tube, the woman who carried out a cesarean section on herself.
My journey and their incredible stories turned into the book I had long wanted to write. It is called The Society of Timid Souls, or How to Be Brave. I am immensely proud of the timid souls and brave ones who afforded me such intimate access to the human spirit in extremis. It has been a humbling experience, more personal than I could ever have imagined. And I hope that the book will not only prop open someone’s bedroom door or level their kitchen table, but also, upon reading, perhaps even make them a little braver themselves.
Longlisted for the 2013 Guardian first book award
“Lively prose…Morland has written a wise and often moving account of a diverse group of extraordinary people who exemplify the bravery that inspires.”–Richmond Times Dispatch
"Morland’s stories are well told and thought-provoking, and she has provided a wonderfully readable narrative." –Roanoke Times
“The book's greatest strength is the author's brisk, witty voice, which conveys the seriousness of her subject in an agreeably light, humanistic tone… her journey is in turns thought-provoking, amusing and heartbreaking.” –Kirkus Reviews
"We all have a private definition of courage, which (I’ve concluded) we take to be universal; but as Polly Morland shows, there are all kinds of courage, and no necessary agreement on what it means. It’s one of those books which encourages a reader to think again: always a good thing, in my view." –Hilary Mantel, author of Bringing Up the Bodies
“Polly Morland has written a beautiful and extremely moving book about the quintessentially human trait of bravery. A widely recognized concept that almost no one really understands, bravery has long needed a serious exploration like The Society of Timid Souls.
It is gorgeously written, deeply felt, and sharply researched. This is one of the few books I know that leaves me literally grateful to the writer for doing the work they do. I loved it.” – Sebastian Junger, author of WAR
“Using her documentarian's eye, Polly Morland has written a moving and deeply personal book; an examination of courage brimming with humanity.”
– Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
“Humans – from the Bronze Age onwards, when we first start to set down ideas about ourselves – have long asked, ‘What is it to be brave?’ With originality, wit, and no little gumption, Polly Morland pursues this same question. Thanks to hundreds of sensitive, face-to-face interviews, her paean to timidity – as well as to bravery – is salutatory and moving. This work reminds us that bravery and courage can be a gift of others, and not something that we struggle for alone.”
– Bettany Hughes, author of The Hemlock Cup
“A dazzling synthesis of reportage, moral philosophy and memoir, Polly Morland’s anatomy of courage moves effortlessly from the bullring and the battlefield to the concert hall and the maternity ward. Searching, startling and richly humane, this is the kind of book that reads you as you read it. A great achievement.” – Matthew Sweet, author of Inventing the Victorians
“With The Society of Timid Souls
, Polly Morland expertly weaves scores of riveting stories, fascinating interviews, and exotic experiences into a ceaselessly engaging investigation of our most elevated virtue. We witness ordinary humans taking extraordinary action on the battlefields, bullrings, big waves, and even lunch counters of this life, and at each turn, would-be timid souls summon resolve in the face of unbearable challenges. For journeying into her own self-doubt, for reminding us of our glorious potential, and for assembling a cast of courageous souls to inspire us to reach it, Polly Morland herself deserves a medal.”
– Aron Ralston, author of Between a Rock and a Hard Place
“Polly Morland's voice is warm yet very smart, and she's collected some cracking good stories.” – Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin
“Morland skips lightly where angels fear to tread. Her book has astonishing range…bracing, moving, and uncommon.” –The Guardian
"It's all about voice, as Polly Morland demonstrates in her eccentric, hugely likable debut." – The Times (London)
"An appealing and original account of one of the greatest human virtues, full of powerful stories. It leaves you hopeful."– The Sunday Times
“Morland investigates the origins of our greatest fears and meets people who have behaved with courage... The results are thought-provoking, insightful and fascinating.” –The Irish Times
“Well worth reading. Morland...wonders what courage is, without being absolutely determined to come up with a definition.” –The Spectator
"Morland is not remotely mawkish. Her tone is bracing, while her book is part self-help guide, part moral philosophy." –The Mail on Sunday