In Support of the Shy

Book review: Shrinking Violets, by Joe Moran

Shyness is about much more than just shrinking away. Violets “shrink” not in retreating from the world but in evincing nature’s talent for endless variation and for sustaining life in the most varied habitats. Shyness, too, can flourish in many climates and soils and express itself in many ways. It can, like the violet, be accompanied by a surprising resilience, even stubbornness. 

Maybe everything that shy people are capable of, and what’s going on behind the facades they present, is much more complex than the outgoing might assume – it’s not only about fear, insecurity, or an uncomfortable degree of introversion.

In Shrinking Violets, author Joe Moran dips into the lives and works of some well-known or well-documented shy people throughout history, aligning their personalities, quirks, and studies and writing with common traits, symptom-like, of shyness. Within this “collective biography”, there are some memoir-esque passages, but in the introduction he writes that he didn’t want the book to be his memoir, and the sections where something personal slips in are subtle and contribute nicely to the situations or examples he’s illustrating. He admits that he’s shy, hence his interest in the topic, but it’s not meant to be all about him. To make it more universal, there’s also interesting coverage of what shyness might mean evolutionarily, and how it presents in some corners of the animal kingdom.

I appreciated the stories of many others who had suffered shyness, leading them to study it, work around it, philosophize about it, and make art despite it. Some of the chapters went a little deep in depth for me, on musicians and the like, and the people covered here who are afflicted with shyness are afflicted in the extreme. It seemed that the light, everyday shyness that I think the majority of people identifying as shy live with wasn’t much in focus in favor of the extreme examples.

There’s also a heavy skew towards the arts, although Moran provides an interesting explanation of why the shy are surprisingly drawn to performing arts, interpreting psychoanalyst Donald Kaplan’s ideas about stage fright’s consuming fear of letting go of the everyday mannerisms that most people cling to, that make us ourselves, concluding that this might have the opposite effect of fear on the shy: Perhaps shy people are drawn to the stage because they do not have this everyday poise, so they are looking to strike another pose that might work better for them.

But there were plenty of beautifully written and researched ideas that I found interesting and helpful. There’s a lot to learn about shy people and especially yourself, if you consider yourself falling somewhere on the shy spectrum. The lens of others’ experience is a good one to apply here, to see how others have managed their social difficulties or turned them into art.

For college I read Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration, about the quickie mental rehabilitation attempts made on shellshocked trench soldiers of World War I, intending only to stabilize  them mentally and return them to the trenches. I loved it and was always interested in its real-life figures, so a highlight of this book for me was seeing some of them pop up. Craiglockhart War Hospital’s psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers was shy, and in treating  poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon, he advised, If you can somehow prevent your shyness from clotting into neurotic risk aversion, it can help you face the world with an added layer of gentleness and curiosity.” And to give you the time and energy to make art. As Moran writes, It is less a shrinking away from the world than a displacement or redirection of our energies. 

For most of our lifetimes we’ve been told that being shy is a bad thing, there’s a plethora of self-help books on how to correct this negative trait. It’s refreshing then to read a book in support of the shy, showing it in a positive light, as a normal element of personality instead of a flaw to be overcome. The encouragement of embracing this quality that’s inherently a part of you is reassuring, instead of pressuring to find ways to “cure” it as we’re often led to believe is necessary. A great related read, and one that I admit I preferred due to its stronger psychological aspect opposed to this history/collective biography, is Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness
by Joe Moran
published February 21,
2017 in the United States by Yale University Press,
originally published August 25, 2016 by Profile Books in the UK

I received an advance copy courtesy of the US publisher for review.


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