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Or, How to Be Brave

by Polly Morland

Pub Date: July 9th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-88906-5
Publisher: Crown

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.