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The Society of Timid Souls: or, How To Be Brave Hardcover – July 9, 2013
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
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
Top customer reviews
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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. Feats become the focus, and the original Society's therapeutic value is little more than a brief history lesson.
Finally, the book seems to rely on an implicit definition of bravery which requires violence, death, pain, or danger. Bravery is occasionally used in conjunction with a limelight, as though acts which are not revealed are somehow less worthy. As a result, there is no place for the everyday man/woman/child to step into the purview.
Likewise, I think the working definition of timidity here is misguided. It is not necessarily a negative or unacceptable quality that must be vanquished. The unassuming lifestyle can still be rich, valid, and skilled. Passion and love for one's vocation does not have to be shouted and shown off; quiet acts of courage are happening all around us every day.
The author proposes that this book will be a reinvention of the Society, and Timid Souls around the world will, through means of this book, help each other learn how to be brave.
In reality, it's a very strangely selected assortment of interviews with people who might be considered brave, if your definition is very flexible. Some of the choices are definitely questionable, and I don't mean the obvious ones like the bank robber. Bull fighters and BASE jumpers and mountain climbers might have a kind of bravery, but the interviews of these types came across to me as glorification of thrill seekers desperate for attention no matter the cost.
Even when an actual brave person is analyzed, it's an odd choice. The one firefighter discussed isn't interviewed at all. She died on the job. Uselessly. We have no idea if she was brave or just confused. Many of the interviewees just happened to be in an adverse situation and reacted in a way that (sometimes) turned out well. Some of the examples are outright fictional characters! As if that's of any help. A lot of the stories were dismal and gory and left me not feeing brave, but disgusted at humanity. I can get plenty of that elsewhere. It did not in any way add to my enjoyment of the book, or the usefulness of the material.
By the end of the book, I came to suspect that the strangeness of the selections reflected a deliberate choice to avoid including anyone who had been motivated by any kind of religious belief--because there are no such people included. Considering that religious belief has been and remains a significant motivation for brave actions throughout history, this seems deliberate. And it's a fine choice, if the author wishes to make it. But it would have been better to be upfront with the reader about the filter being used.
Most of the interviews are generally interesting, if not useful to the promised goal. There are tiny tidbits of advice or inspiration, but you'd get more concrete guidance on bravery from the Wikipedia article on the subject.
Most recent customer reviews
While the title intrigued me, the stories and related musings have not given me, as a reader, any direct insight in "how to be...Read more