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Author of first readings assignment speaks on courage

Eyal Press ’92, author of “Beautiful Souls,” discusses his book with students at a series of events held on campus

A Swiss police commander, a gutsy financial adviser, a Serbian civilian who lies to save lives and an Israeli solider are four individuals all incoming first-years became acquainted with this summer as part of the first readings assignment, “Beautiful Souls.”

Students had the opportunity to make another acquaintance — the author Eyal Press ’92 — at a series of events held on campus Tuesday and Wednesday.

“My theme is defiance and moral courage and taking a stand,” Press said at a lecture Tuesday in Salomon 101. Press also participated in a classroom visit and a Faculty Advising Fellows lunch with students as part of his two-day visit.

At the lecture, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron introduced Press as a New York-based journalist born in Jerusalem and raised in Buffalo, NY. His book, which he referred to throughout the lecture, centered around the stories of four separate real-life individuals who chose to defy convention, laws and expectations through acts of moral conscience.

Press said his conception of courage has evolved over the 25 years since he was a first-year at Brown. At the age of 18, he thought courage relied on the physical qualities of being tough and fearless, “idealized and uncomplicated,” he said. This is the courage society most commonly praises, Press told The Herald. But Press wanted to write about a different kind of courage, one he said he found “more remarkable and admirable” — moral courage.

Resistance is complex, and all people encounter situations in which they must face “conflicting voices,” he said. During his visit, Press said a student approached him on the Main Green to ask, “Would you do it?” — referring to defying convention. In his lecture, Press said perhaps the more relevant and challenging question is “How would you react if someone else did?”

Press told The Herald his goal in writing “Beautiful Souls” was to write a “compelling” book on a subject that is too often written about in ways that are “sanctimonious,” “honey-coated” and “rose-tinted.” Rather than portray the players as heroes, he said he wanted to show their gripping stories were complicated.

The title of the book embodies the complexity of this concept, Press said. He sees “Beautiful Souls” as another translation of the Israeli phrase, “yafeh nafesh,” which roughly means “bleeding heart” and often holds a negative connotation indicating excessive and simplistic naivete.

“It is precisely because it carries negative and complicated connotations that I chose it,” Press said.

Press subscribes to a self-proclaimed “arduous” writing process, based on the idea that “writing is rewriting.”

The challenge, he told The Herald, was to write in a way that would “take the reader on a journey” with him — one that bridged cultures, continents, eras and values. He said compared to his journalistic work, he enjoyed the process of writing novels because in the end, “a book is really yours.”

Press said he had “no idea” he would become a writer when he arrived at Brown as a first-year. It was when a professor first lauded his work in an anthropology seminar in his first semester that he began to consider the possibility of writing.

“Do something you’re passionate about rather than something at which you’re incredibly gifted,” he advised students. Press said it is hard to believe how many years it has been since he was a student at Brown. The opportunity to come back as a first-readings author, he said, was especially exciting given the opportunity to interact with students.

The first readings program is designed to help orient incoming first-years to class discussion at the university level, said Associate Dean of the College Ann Gaylin. The program requires first-years to read an assigned book and then write letters to their advisers and meet in seminars to discuss the book with other students when they arrive on campus, she said. She added that the chosen book is intended to be both “relevant and thought-provoking” and that they seek books whose authors are willing to visit Brown in order to provide students the opportunity to engage with them.

Jeff Ball ’17 said though he didn’t plan to go to the events, he appreciated the first readings program as a strong introduction to the academic process of discussion at Brown. “‘Beautiful Souls’ gave us a lot to think about in terms of heavy issues and served as a good way to evaluate ourselves and the way we think,” he added.

Danielle Alvarez ’17 said she would have gone to the events if she had been free, as “it is a very different experience to hear what the author has to say.” She added that she appreciated “the broad perspective of issues” the book introduced.

The goal of the program, Gaylin said, is “to get people thinking — to get people talking.”


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