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The Society of Timid Souls: or, How To Be Brave Hardcover – July 9, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (July 9, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307889068
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307889065
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #994,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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

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Customer Reviews

I like Ms. Morland's writing style, but it doesn't seem suited to the subject.
Julie H. Rose
This book allowed me to listen to what others, whose life experiences when it comes to bravery are very diverse, think about bravery.
This is a book that would be really good to read at night before going to sleep.
Gene Bowker

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By S. L. Smith TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Yes, there actually was a Society of Timid Souls. A small group of musicians came together in the 1940s with a mission "to play, to criticize and be criticized". Their hope was to use group dynamics to overcome stage fright and become better at their craft. Polly Morland, with her book The Society of Timid Souls", is issuing a call to resurrect the Society. This rally is partly due to the sad state of the world's population as measured by the Anxiety Index. And yes, this, too, really exists.

The book's subtitle is "How To Be Brave", and therein lies my key issue with The Society Of Timid Souls. The book is flooded with examples and tales of the uber-brave and the already-brave. A few readers will gawk and marvel (others will blanch) at the bullfighter, who - we are supposed to believe - is really only slaying his own cowardice.

Other examples are equally beyond the reach of the courage-impaired life, from the extreme (a woman performs her own C-section with a butcher knife) to the anatomical (a brain damaged person who is organically incapable of feeling fear) to the silly (fear of stuffed animals). Pages and pages of unattainably audacious behavior kept the accessibility factor minimal for me.

The critical element from the original group's mission statement, i.e., the laying bare and being inspected plus the improving of THAT ability, is missing from the book. Instead, the book lurches along, as the author reaches back to Shakespeare, then Plato, zooms forward to Grimm, and through it all relates examples taken from her own private life. The process behind the mission gets trumped by cajones; the "how" in "How To Be Brave" is overlooked in favor of showmanship.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A reader VINE VOICE on June 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book is an exploration of the various expressions and meanings of bravery, courage, guts, etc. The author has interviewed an intriguing array of people from all walks of life who exhibit courage that is both voluntary and expected (soldiers, police, performers, robbers, bullfighters, activists, a wide variety of daredevil performers) and unexpected (people fighting diseases like ALS, victims of crime and accidents, people with phobias, PTSD, etc.) Some of these people have performed acts of mindboggling heroism, while others are just trying to meet the challenges of everyday life.

The author, feeling herself to be a timid soul, asks various questions moral courage vs. thrill seeking chutzpah, and the moral issues involved (is committing a crime an act of courage?) etc. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the unorthodox methods of the Society for Timid Souls, which made a wonderful and inviting beginning to the book. The stories are powerful and riveting, and it was fascinating to learn more about the thought processes of people facing such extreme situations. I only had two very minor reservations (4.5 stars.) First, I felt that she might have explored some of the effective skills that psychologists and others have come up with to help people facing anxiety gain courage, conviction, and mental clarity using self-hypnosis, etc. These skills are widely used by athletes and increasingly by performers. Saul Miller, James Loehr and many others have written about this subject.

Second, despite the title, Morland does not offer simple answers to the questions she raises, though there is much material for further thought. Readers expecting something more specific, as the title suggests may find this surprising.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Ace VINE VOICE on May 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The first few sentences of this book madde me laugh hysterically -- in a good way. As a Bronxite I never knew there was such a thing as a Bronx Cheer Whistle. Sis and I just used our mouths and tongues. I hope those whistles are still available!!

Anyway, on to the meat and potatoes of this book. The opening is rich in visuals and feeling -- cold snow, busy streets, anxious performers, members of the Society of Timid Souls, made to play their pieces while the others created "distractions" of the extremely loud and unexpected kind. As one anxious performer said after her "ordeal" - "I could" perform "in a boiler factory now!".

And although the book appears to bog down in discourse after the first chapter, it does not -- press on!!! The great majority of the book is rich in observations, case studies, philosophy of panic and PTSD as well as the means taken by those afflicted nowadays to reverse or mitigate its effects on them.

Polly Morland explains and illustrates bravery by interviewing murderers, philosophers, eccentric behaviorists, law officers, and the-man/woman-on-the- street -- all of whom have or have experienced violence, Panic attacks, PTSD and...Bravery. Daredevils enrich us with their concept of "Living Life to the Fullest". Officer Cruz stuns us by his depiction of the word "bravery" when applying it to the man who almost killed him. Those climbers who walked by David Sharpe in his last(?) moments on Everest, appear to demonstrate the meaning of the word "sin of omission" -- none of them seemingly brave enough it seems, to stop and minister aid.

We read how a soldier "must learn coldly to put himself" (or herself) "in the way of losing life without going mad". Martin Bell exhibited this bravery when trying to clear a minefield.
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