Book Review: "Beautiful Souls" by Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair Author Eyal Press

Meet author Eyal Press at 7pm on October 28 at the 2012 Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, 1375 St. Paul Ave in St. Paul. Admission is $9.

I have to admit, I agreed to read and review “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times” by Eyal Press because I wanted to read something uplifting. I wanted to ponder the opposite of the “banality of evil;” Hannah Arendt’s theory about how ordinary people do unspeakably horrible things.
Unfortunately, this book is not at all uplifting.
It does tell three stories of people who undeniably did the right thing in the face of pressure to do wrong – and one story of someone whose choice may or may not have been the right one, depending on your political and philosophical leanings – but these stories are far from heartwarming.
The stories are told dispassionately, and even include one guy who’s fairly unlikable. One never gets the sense that Mr. Press cares for these people, so the reader never learns to care for them either.
Further, the author’s presumed positive view of these people is brought into question by his choice of the book’s title. As he explains in the third chapter, the term “Yafeh Nefesh” or “Beautiful Soul” in Hebrew has a negative connotation, and actually means someone who is naïve.
Mr. Press travels to several countries and spends quite a bit of time with his subjects and/or their relatives, in what turns out to be a failed attempt to discover what led them to make the choices they made. Despite all his time and effort, Mr. Press never gives us a clear picture of their motivations.
Rather, the book meanders around a bit, dipping its toes into the waters of several theories developed by other authors about why people stand up and do what they believe to be the right thing. The book also skims the surface of other issues, such as whether it is okay to resist lawful orders for political reasons. The result is a book which attempts to be broad but which lacks any depth or meaning.
In the end, Mr. Press concludes that those who resist authority do what they believe is right generally because they are naïve enough to believe in the high moral standards espoused by their country and/or the industry in which they work. And, he points out, their choices usually turn out badly for them, resulting in the loss of their job, many of their relationships, and often their reputation.
So if you’re looking for an uplifting or enlightening experience, this book isn’t for you.
*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: TC Jewfolk received a free copy of ”Beautiful Souls” in the hope that we would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the book for free doesn’t mean that we were obligated to give a glowing review. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”