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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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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)
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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On the other hand, I felt the big ideas were important. Because they weren't just "inspiring stories". You can tell Eyal did his research. And I loved how he developed the stories within the structure of those big ideas. For example, you read the story and think you get it. Then he tries to delve into motive, talks about the more academic ideas of why someone would do such a thing, and then returns to the story. Except, those academic ideas don't hold up - at least in this story, they don't explain the motive, and Eyal shows you why by giving you more information about the story. Then he returns to the theories of motives and finds another one, then back to the story to check it out. Eventually you do get "answers". But each return gives you more depth into the story, more information. But I think that's also why it's easy to get caught up in the story and forget that he's structuring a cogent argument.
Eyal Press came and spoke with our class (thank you professor!). He answered questions and discussed the book for 2 hours. But two things were very clear after speaking with him that I felt were not clear reading the book. First, he intentionally started far back in time (WWII) and brought the stories closer to the present. He wanted to bring these people out of the realm of "heroes" and into the mundane - to make them "real". It also served to emphasize that "heroes" are often rejected until history looks back on them. I appreciated that, but hadn't noticed it while reading. Second, they're not "inspiring" stories. In fact, Eyal suggested that what he realized was that they all paid a price, often for the rest of their lives / career, and their actions are futile unless others follow. That was a somber thought. It's easy to say, "Look, this person made a difference! We should follow her example!" But the truth is, people look at them and say, "They're crazy!" And they often live out their lives isolated and rejected - unless they have a strong community that backs them up. This definitely wasn't the idealism of "One person can change the world!"
Overall, it gives a realistic look at how hard it is to go against society pressure, to say no to the way things are or to authority. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I give it only 4 stars, because I felt there were a few main points that didn't click for me until talking with the author. Maybe that's my fault. But I feel some of the "big ideas" are easy to lose in the details. And as much as I appreciate the artistic interweaving, I've also come to believe that great writing gets the big ideas across clearly. Maybe I'll read it again next year and change my review. Until then, decide for yourself. Absolutely worth your time!
I loved the book. It taught me a lot, there is rich and clear information, very sophisticated thinking. I found it profound, beautifully designed , for instance in bringing back subjects that had been talked about earlier so as to render it coherent and consistent.
I loved that the author leaves it up to the reader to draw conclusions, or, just to be disoriented. He provides the examples, the discussions among authors, the difficulty in establishing what makes the beautiful and often sacrificial act the only way to be, at least, for these people. He also offers his own point of view but it is not his goal to impose it. I think his goal is to make people reflect and he certainly succeeds in doing so.