Once you start wondering about bravery, what it is and what it means, you soon start to see it everywhere. It’s there in every sort of human struggle from the first bold moves of infancy to the last breaths of old age. And courage is the very lifeblood of our stories too.
Stories are in large part how we work out what courage is. You’d be pushed to find a brave soul – and believe me, I’ve looked – who has not, to some extent, been motivated or inspired by a tale of courage from somewhere.
That’s why it’s hard to pick just five books that taught me about this much-loved, much-touted and elusive human quality. But here is a selection for starters:
The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
As a child, I loved this book and recently I re-read it with my own kids. It remains deliciously funny and exciting, of course, but I was struck this time around by the moral complexity of this little allegory of siege and war, with its terrible compromises and the salty dynamism of its hero, Mr. Fox. It offers an immaculate sketch of a certain strain of bravery: very human (if you’ll pardon the incongruity), full of imperfections, chutzpah, but also full of love.
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Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The ultimate – and perfect – exploration of the difficulty at the heart of all courage, the haunting gap that yawns between the desire to act and the ability to do so. Don’t be put off by this play’s iconic status as Great Literature, but read it with an eye to young Hamlet’s timeless predicament. How can a creature as small and mutable as a man make a difference to the world around him? How can he metabolize doubt and indecision to make the best of a single life?
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
This book is itself material proof of a remarkable courage. Bauby wrote it in the aftermath of a massive stroke which left him with locked-in syndrome. The manuscript was dictated, letter by letter, with the blinking of his left eye and what emerged was a luminous account of his life past and present. It is both heart-breaking and life-affirming, every word redolent of what it is to be human and testament like no other to what it is to be brave.
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
This Anglo-Saxon epic is not only the primordial soup from which the English imagination came forth. It is also a crashing good yarn. The baddies are terrifying, the goodies muscular. The battles are thrilling. The suspense is palpable. And grief when it comes is visceral, heart-rending. Revived in Heaney’s ravishing new translation, Beowulf also offers a unique window on how courage exists in the telling as well as in the doing, how our heroes and their afterlife of fame are conjured by their stories, as well as by their deeds.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
The Periodic Table is a book that changed beyond recognition my idea of what is possible to achieve with the written word. It defies categorization and would sit just as happily on a list of great science books or great short story anthologies, great memoirs or great novels. It’s the product of an act of supreme creative bravery, while at the same time offering an account, all-too-real, of the anguished legacy of the Holocaust. To live through that, and then to write like this, seems to me the very definition of a certain sort of human courage.
RIFers! What book would you add to Polly Morland’s fantastic list?