This is the June edition of Ask Harry, our monthly compilation of life affirming and mind-expanding books, podcasts and articles. Subscribe here

Dear reader, 

What, exactly, is courage? To some, the word might evoke an image of the fearless warrior valiantly facing extreme danger; to others it might conjure quite the opposite: the unassuming quiet type courageous enough to sit back, think deeply and listen to what others have to say. The meaning of courage can shift and alter -- like a chameleon changing its colours -- but one thing remains invariably true: whichever way you practice it, being courageous involves the revelation of what lies within your heart.  


Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous heroine, showed us her heart when, ordered to be still and not "struggle like a wild, frantic bird," she fiercely retorted: "I am no bird; and no net ensnares me, I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you." Eowyn, from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," heard the whispers of her heart when she disguised herself as a man and claimed her desired place on the battlefield. And Atticus Finch, of Harper Lee’s stunning classic "To Kill A Mockingbird," unveiled his heart when he told his daughter that courage is not "a man with a gun in his hand," it is rather knowing when "you're licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Heart is what the greatest literature is made of. We read for the great privilege - and wisdom - of peering into the heart of another. And this feels like a great relief, because unlike most fictional characters, real people can be frustratingly cryptic; it is difficult to see clearly, and to hear soundly, what resides in another's heart. Books, though, refine our perspective and bolster our ability to empathise with the emotional experience of another human being.

But this is not where the tremendous power of reading stops. Perhaps the most magical aspect of reading a book is how it draws us inward, shifting our gaze towards our own heart and the seeds of courage slowly taking shape within us.

Below, you will find a collection of carefully selected content that will illuminate not just the bravery of others – and there is plenty of that! – but also open the path for you to better see the courage within yourself.


The “eggshell skull,” a legal doctrine, affirms that a defendant in a court case “must take their victim as they find them.” The frailty of the person who was harmed, therefore, cannot demote the gravity of the crime. This rule is the arc that shapes this startling and eloquently fierce memoir of a woman who, in the great Helen Garner’s words, “finds her steel and learns to wield it.” Bri Lee – the extraordinary woman in question – skilfully relays her journey through Australia’s legal system; as a law student, a district judge’s associate, and, most movingly, as a claimant in her own case of sexual abuse. This book is full of heart, and exudes the kind of unique bravery Atticus Finch extoled to his young daughter: the sort that pushes you to go for it even though you know you might be defeated.


This book is a fascinating and mind-expanding exploration of vulnerability and imperfection. Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor whose field of study is, pretty much, “the whole-hearted life,” does an outstanding job in convincing us to step into – and truly feel – the discomfort of resting in the unknown. If there was ever a handbook on bravery, this is it: “Daring Greatly” will reveal the benefits of accepting your imperfection, allow you to see your vulnerability as your greatest strength and urge you to let go of the all-too common story most of us endlessly replay in our minds: that we are not good enough.


In this expertly woven post-apocalyptic tale, we find that 99% of the world’s population has succumbed to the Georgia Flu, a fatal virulent disease. Throughout the story, St. John Mandel goes from discussing the day the virus hit – which is, as expected, terrifying – and the world two decades following the near-total wipe out. The chapters that illuminate the world after the virus wreaked havoc focus on “The Travelling Symphony,” a group of actors and performers who roam the remaining rudimentary settlements performing Shakespeare to audiences of survivors. What these performances offer – described with a lyrical precision that will make your heart skip – is the fundamental truth that the courage to create something beautiful, even in the face of disaster, can overcome all shades of adversity.


Most will be familiar with this classic story: Jane Eyre is a lonely orphan growing up under the heartless and cruel tutelage of her aunt. While she achieves some freedom when she finds employment as a governess to the laconic and brooding Mr. Rochester at Thornfield Hall, life does not become easier for Jane: she must draw on the steel-like resolve her tough childhood has bestowed upon her in order to cope with both her growing love for Mr. Rochester and her discovery of a terrible secret. Not only does she cope – and valiantly so – but she destroys notions of both social classes and gender roles along the way. Timely and timeless, this coming of age story will – like drying clay – solidify your belief in yourself.


Meet young Ada, a nine-year old London-dweller whose punishing mother, ashamed of her daughter’s club foot, has never allowed her to leave their flat. As the Second World War rages, Ada’s younger brother Jamie is evacuated from London and sent to the relative safety of the countryside. Clever Ada sees this as an opportunity to gain her freedom: she sneaks out of the flat and joins him. Under their new caregiver’s protection, Ada thrives and comes into her own: she teaches herself to ride a pony, learns how to read and keeps an eye out for German spies. As the dark shadow of Ada’s harsh mother looms, we cheer for her triumph over the despair of her past and her steadfast attempt to rebuild her life. You will love this book.


Join Meg Murry – along with her brother, Charles, and friend, Calvin – as she travels through space and time to rescue her father, a gifted scientist imprisoned by evil forces on another planet. Through intense wins and losses, Meg will transform herself from a shy and awkward girl to a strong and fearless child intemperate in her commitment to protect those she loves. This deeply literary novel – magnificent for both young and old readers – reminds us that staring into the darkness emboldens, rather than shrinks, our hearts.


This vivid and enchanting book is a timely compilation of stories that offers a different narrative on masculinity: you don’t have to slay a dragon or save a princess to be a courageous boy. Each story within this book will leave boys – and girls – believing that bravery takes all sorts of forms: picking up a book, wearing a dress, crying when you’re sad. “Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different” is a worthy addition to the night-time routine, and a gorgeous clarion call to those who need the encouragement required to reject peer pressure and embrace their inner misfit.


Pair “Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different” with “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls,” (1 & 2!), the already very well-established collection of stories about girls who broke all stereotypes and achieved the seemingly impossible. Unearth your little one’s – and your! – bravery with Michelle Obama, Malala, Ada Lovelace and other deeply inspiring trailblazers.  


With straightforward grace and beauty, Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen – an unsurprisingly perfect duo – bring us the story of Laszlo, a boy who is deathly afraid of the dark, even though the dark – as it proclaims – is not afraid of him. One night, as Laszlo’s night light goes out, the dark sneaks into Laszlo’s room and urges him to visit the dark’s home in the basement. What will Laszlo find? The courage, perhaps, to overcome his most deep-seated fear.


This delightful baby book depicts four men and four women from history who have led by example, using courage to change the world for the better. With beautiful, bright illustrations and concise text, Heidi Poelman provides a short biography on each person; what they were fighting for and what they did to achieve it, as well as a quote from the person to encapsulate their vision of change. The illustrations by Kyle Kershner are vivid and endearing, helping to engage the reader in each story. Among the cast of inspiring characters we see Martin Luther King Junior, Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman, revealing important messages of freedom and peace. Courageous People Who Changed the World is a fantastic introduction to courage and the wonderful things that can be accomplished with it, perfectly suited to little ones above the age of 4.  



Join the nearly 35 million people who have watched Brené Brown's exceptional talk on why vulnerability is essential in our quest to live a full, rich and meaningful life. 


In his extraordinary "Daring Greatly" speech delivered in Paris in April of 1910, the great Theodore Roosevelt urged his listeners to find the courage to see that "it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles," and that "the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood..." and who "if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."


This episode of  "This American Life" follows two beautiful stories: one is that of a disconnected phone booth in Japan where thousands of people who lost loved ones in the 2011 tsunami and earthquake speak to their dead; and another is a very moving conversation between two brothers who have not spoken to each other in many years. Go on and listen: these stories will warm your heart and, perhaps, impel you to speak what is in your heart (even though it's scary). 


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Until next month,

Harry Hartog