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Shrinking Violets by Joe Moran

Shrinking Violets by Joe Moran
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£14.99

Joe Moran, like many of us, is shy, said Paul Laity in The Guardian. He is hopeless at small talk and has a “dread of being boring”. Thankfully, his new book, a “field guide” to shyness, “exhibits all the sparkle and fluency on the page he might lack when chatting to strangers”. Unlike others who have tackled this subject, Moran doesn’t set out to be a “cheerleader” for introverts. He recognises that shyness is a “multilayered condition” that can affect the “talented and untalented alike”. Instead, his aim is to “entertain” – and much of his book consists of enjoyable portraits of history’s more interesting shrinking violets. Among its subjects are the 5th Duke of Portland (who built tunnels under his land so as to avoid the risk of bumping into anyone when out walking); the computer scientist Alan Turing (who “shrank back with fear” when offered cups of tea by colleagues at Bletchley); and the singer Morrissey (who “converted his classic bedroom diffidence into mesmerising pop showmanship”). Shyness, Moran concludes, is “neither a boon nor a burden” but simply “part of the ineluctable oddness of being human”.

Yet it doesn’t affect all cultures equally, said Melanie Reid in The Times. In the 19th century, lack of small talk was seen as a peculiarly English trait: “une conversation à l’Angloise” meant a long silence. The weather is clearly a factor, as the “haunts of the diffident are in northern climes”. (“The Finns have as many words for embarrassment as the Inuit have for snow.”) In the end, though, it’s impossible to say why one person is “paralysingly bashful” and another is an extrovert, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. Moran spends less time reflecting on shyness’s causes than telling us “stories of the shy”. The result is “fantastic”, a work of “astonishing” scholarship that also “radiates understanding”.