The Society of Timid Souls: or, How To Be Brave

The Society of Timid Souls: or, How To Be Brave

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by Polly Morland

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A journey into the modern life of an ancient virtue ­– bravery – and a quest to understand who might possess it and how
With The Society of Timid Souls, or How To Be Brave, documentary filmmaker Polly Morland sets out to investigate bravery, a quality that she has always felt she lacked.  The book takes

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A journey into the modern life of an ancient virtue ­– bravery – and a quest to understand who might possess it and how
With The Society of Timid Souls, or How To Be Brave, documentary filmmaker Polly Morland sets out to investigate bravery, a quality that she has always felt she lacked.  The book takes inspiration from a vividly eccentric, and radical, self-help group for stage-frightened performers in 1940s Manhattan, which coincided with the terrifying height of World War II and was called The Society of Timid Souls.  Seventy years later, as anxiety about everything from terrorism to economic meltdown continues, Morland argues that courage has become a virtue in crisis.  We are, she says, all Timid Souls now.

   Despite a career in which she has filmed in rebel-held Colombian jungles and at the edge of Balkan mass graves, interviewing convicted murderers, drug-traffickers, and terrorists, Morland herself has never felt brave.  Often, the very reverse.  So she sets out to discover how and why courage is achieved in an age of anxiety and whether it might even be learned.  Drawing on her interviews and encounters with soldiers and civilians, bullfighters and big-wave surfers, dissidents fighting for freedom and cancer patients fighting for their lives, Morland examines bravery across the spectrum: from the first childhood act of defiance by Bernard Lafayette, a leader of the civil rights movement who later faced down the KKK in Alabama, or the reflexive will-to-survive of  Vjollca Berisha, a Kosovo Albanian who endured a massacre by playing dead among the bodies of her own family, to the small acts of everyday bravery that quietly punctuate our lives, in schoolyards, labor wards, and hospices the world over.

   Along the way, Morland draws attention to some of the myths of bravery that have been conjured and perpetuated over time and argues that, often, courage exists as much in the telling as in the doing.  At once an exploration of what bravery means and a chronicle of the author's personal journey among those who embody it, The Society of Timid Souls is a profound, approachable meditation on this most valued and mysterious of human qualities.  In setting off on the trail of the lionhearted, Polly Morland finds out a great deal about what makes some of us extraordinary, and what of the extraordinary we all share.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British documentary filmmaker Morland takes readers on an expansive philosophical inquiry into the nuanced qualities of timidity and courage. With a mix of cheerful camaraderie and robust curiosity, she reports on individuals in widely diverging circumstances that try their courage or cowardice. Her choices range from veterans of the war in Afghanistan and big-wave surfers to a computer scientist with ALS and an opera singer heckled at La Scala. As she wades through thorny moral and ethical issues, Morland also delves into etymology, making frequent use of major writers and thinkers who have pondered the value of courage. Another tricky notion Morland tackles is whether selfless acts trump self-serving, high-risk adventures like high-wire walking and scaling skyscrapers. Occasionally, it seems as if she is comparing apples and oranges, but generally Morland steers deftly through touchy areas like the role of non-violent yet courageous actions. Her well-chosen examples are thought-provoking, and her refusal to offer a pat answer opens dialogue that will continue long after the book ends, making it a great choice for book clubs and classrooms. (July)
From the Publisher
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

Kirkus Reviews
A celebration of one of humankind's rarest and most valuable virtues: bravery. Documentarian Morland interviews a diverse group of brave individuals--soldiers, big wave surfers, civil rights activists, sufferers of terminal diseases and bank robbers make the cut--in an attempt to isolate the origin and meaning of this elusive trait, which she believes is in distressingly short supply in our coddled yet hysterical age. The title refers to a group of musicians struggling with stage fright convened in the early 1940s by Bernard Gabriel, a classical pianist and proto–inspirational speaker. He subjected his charges to aggressive heckling as they practiced in order to inure them to that particular anxiety, freeing them to play in real performance situations with greater confidence. This immersive method is one of many strategies Morland identifies as courage-building. Others include the comprehensive preparation and devotion to a unit that allow soldiers to regularly risk life and limb, the rigorous practice and heightened sense of pride drilled into bullfighters, and spiritual notions of self-actualization and nonconformity that motivate surfers and climbers. Most mysterious of all courage-builders is the innate knowledge of the right thing to do in a crisis, which some people instinctively access and act upon in a mental state that supersedes conscious decision-making. Most of Morland's subjects are articulate and engaging, and the stories of tragedy and atrocity have obvious emotional impact, but 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. Though the author's conclusions are not earth shattering, her subject is worthy, and her journey is in turns thought-provoking, amusing and heartbreaking. An entertaining and occasionally inspiring look at a surprisingly slippery subject.

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5.90(w) x 8.32(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

POLLY MORLAND is an award-winning British documentary maker.  She has directed and produced for the BBC, Channel 4, and the Discovery Channel and lives in the Welsh borderlands with her husband and three sons.

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