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In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise Hardcover – April 6, 2010

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Read an excerpt from In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik [PDF].

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (April 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385528884
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385528887
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.3 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #806,757 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Exclusive: Lawrence Osborne Reviews In Pursuit of Silence

Lawrence Osborne has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and other publications, and is the author of six books, including The Accidental Connoisseur and The Naked Tourist. His latest work, Bangkok Days, was published in 2009. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review of In Pursuit of Silence:

At the beginning of George Prochnik’s inquiry into the nature of silence and its perpetual nemesis, noise, he observes, “Something seems to have made us fall in love with noise as a society. It's a torrid, choppy affair that we are often in denial about, or tend to laugh off as a bass-heavy, summer night’s fling.” It’s a strange and delicious premise: to launch an extended essay into the obscure root causes of our culture’s inability to be quiet, its self-saturation with its own largely uninteresting cacophony. Are we becoming noisier? Prochnik argues that we are, and that as we become noisier we also lose touch with the many dimensions of silence itself, a silence which research seems to suggest is as therapeutic--as essential--to the human animal as antibiotics or uncontaminated food.

Americans suffer enormously from noise pollution. Insomnia, aggression, heart disease, decreased longevity even...the side-effects of enduring other people’s noise are detailed here with disturbing elegance. It’s almost as if noise itself is a disease, a pathogen. But whereas a doctor or a “noise scientist” would have written a straightforward catalogue of this network of medical cause and effect, Prochnik goes for a more sinuous, open-ended literary method that enables him to cover a wider territory with less strain on the reader’s capacity to absorb science. He is asking, after all, a philosophical question rather than a scientific one. Why do we love noise, fear silence and evade a stillness that demonstrably puts us in closer connection with things that give us happiness if we let them?

Early on in his voyage Prochnik spends some time with a cop who is frequently called upon to intervene in domestic disputes. When he arrives he usually finds that the unhappy home is a raging cacophony of radios, TV’s, music all playing simultaneously--layer upon layer of mad noise used to prevent silence from arbitrating between the combatants. The cop tells Prochnik that he merely asks the subjects to turn off the appliances and the near-homicidal atmosphere dissolves almost at once. They had, he says, been arguing with noise itself rather than with each other.

It’s a small anecdote that shows how counterintuitive much of our real relationship with noise and silence really is. This delightful book considers facet after facet of this relationship and does so from the perspective of someone who is, so to speak, a “noise sufferer” himself. It could so easily have been a Sedaris-y kind of tongue-in-cheek memoir about a succession of sonic mishaps and misadventures, but Prochnik--by virtue of a kind of pressing moral insistence born of genuine unease and even anger--weaves a more objective tale as he plunges into the exotic milieus of engineers, scientists, astronauts and sundry monks, ascetics and artists who struggle with the eternal duel of noise and silence. The end result is a book that you read--as I did--on long intercontinental flights with the roar of engines around you, aware suddenly of how peculiar the cultural pathology is but drawn in by the book’s own measured stillness. It is not an easy feat to pull off.

A Note from The Author

I’ve always been a lover of silence, and this love is bound up with my passion for books. The writer Stefan Zweig once defined a book as a “handful of silence that assuages torment and unrest.” For years before I began writing about the subject, I’d been feeling that silence was a diminishing natural resource. I wanted to understand whether this was more than a subjective impression. If so, why had the world become louder, and what could be done to reinstate silence as a value in our culture?

Living in New York City, I couldn’t help being aware that almost everyone I knew hated the city's noisiness. But if everyone despises noise so much, why is there so much of it? And why do so many noise-haters also spend hours of the day with iPods in their ears, sleep next to loud air-conditioners, turn on televisions the moment they walk into a room, and crank up their car radios the moment they sit down behind the wheel?

We’re never going to make progress toward creating a quieter world until we learn to understand our secret love affair with noise. Part of what we have to recognize is that noise is a compelling stimulant. This noise-high can be addictive and adding your own din into the mix can become a way of exerting control. Stepping back from all the stimulation is not easy, but it can be done. Rather than cutting out stimulation, I went searching for the kinds of sonic wonders that only become audible when we manage to quiet down the world around us.

Instead of being against noise, I think we need to begin making a case for silence. This means getting imaginative about expanding our understanding of silence in ways that develop associations between silence and a vibrant, fulfilling life. Anti-noise activists often compare noise pollution to air pollution. But unlike smoke, lots of noises are good, at least some of the time. Instead, we might frame noise as a dietary problem. Most of us absorb far too much sonic junk. We need to develop a more balanced sound diet in which silence, and sounds we associate with quiet states of mind, become part of our daily regimen.

My hope is that by making positive experiences of silence more broadly accessible, more people will be tempted to cultivate silence of their own volition. Who knows? If we manage to recover more quiet in the world, maybe people will even begin reading more books again--rediscovering what can be contained in a handful of silence. --George Prochnik

From Publishers Weekly

Silence is golden, but noise is more stimulating in this smart if occasionally overearnest rumination on our modern soundscape. Prochnik (Putnam Camp) is at his best investigating the culture of noise—the traffic, TV, and iPods—that ravages our hearing and peace of mind. He tunes in with a sprightly mix of science—babies, it seems, have evolved to squall at pitches the human ear finds maximally annoying—and reportage, visiting a designer who concocts soundtracks that make Abercrombie & Fitch patrons spend (loud, strong, fast beats pump energy—and social conformity into soldiers and teen shoppers alike) and the subculture of competitive loud car-stereo tournaments. (I didn't hear sound, the author observes of one window-shattering system. I just experienced my bones and heart bursting apart through my skin.) Prochnik's explorations of silence—visiting a Trappist monastery, searching for oases of quiet in Manhattan—are more muted, veering between health advice (meditation improves the brain) and muzzy spirituality. (The more we hear nothing, the more nothing we hear, intones a sniper.) Silence is good for falling asleep, but Prochnik's attentive take on noise keeps us wide awake. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Customer Reviews

The writing in the book is extraordinary: elegant, engaging, and humorous.
If you're sick of people who make noise and want some help fighting them, this isn't the greatest book.
It's a fascinating survey any college-level or general lending library will appreciate.
Midwest Book Review

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Frederick Kaufman on April 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a beautifully written, scientific and philosophical account of sound and meaning in our over-hyped, maximum-volume world. Prochnik has done outstanding research and great reporting, and he offers profound meditations on the Walkman, the iPad, PA systems, urban pocket parks, sound designers, Deaf Architecture, and Trappist monks, among many other fascinating (and often disquieting) topics. An amazing book.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By ireadabookaday VINE VOICE on April 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book explains why. It will lead you to think about noise in a way you probably haven't ( a cop explains that loud noises probably contribute to domestic violence) and explain why it is bad for us- but also why total silence isn't good , either. A graceful and readable mix of research and anecdote, this book will interest anyone who wrestles with the effects of a too-loud world.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By France Kassing on April 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover
George Prochnick takes us on an adventure through the many aspects of silence and sound. As we accompany him everywhere his quest takes him, be it a monastery or a boom car competition, we share discoveries that surprise and either thrill or dismay us. Just as in Manhattan's pocket parks, this book delivers a sense of well-being in its many delightful episodes. Beautifully written, I found myself eagerly awaiting the next expert the author would encounter just for the pleasure of reading his description of that person. I recommend this book heartily to anyone who wishes to expand their understanding of the world around them and have a great time doing it.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By BlogOnBooks on May 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Though rarely mentioned, the world is getting louder. Urban expansion, media explosion, piped in muzak and ubiquitous earbuds are all adding up to a society that has become immersed in noise pollution, and often unwittingly so. George Prochnik, a psychology-based writer (`Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam and the Purpose of American Psychology') has studied this in both its rudimentary and more advanced levels and published the results in his latest book, `In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.'

Prochnik's research covers a wide range of issues related to both sound and silence including everything from the acoustics and physics of sound, public noise policy, antinoise activism, the science of hearing, deafness and the biophysics of the ear itself. He also engages in a host of what is best termed `field research' as he takes readers to environments ranging from the world of Noise-Cons and `boom cars' to the obscure `pocket parks' buried inside of Manhattan. By exploring societal norms and environmental noise factors (for example, that bars and restaurants sell more consumable products - food and drink - when decibel levels are raised on their patrons),

Prochnik is also able to elucidate the antidotes for avoiding the sound onslaught that sometimes seems to be an unavoidable inevitability of today's complex world. By shedding light on techniques from state-of-the-art soundproofing to Zen meditation, Prochnik shows the reader a way out of the sonic noise spectrum, but he stresses, it is not without its cost.

In all, `In Pursuit of Silence' is not a prosaic tome (as one might presume) as much as it is a neo-scientific study; not as clinical as a text on the subject, but still focused and specific.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Bluestalking Reader VINE VOICE on May 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Count me amongst those seemingly rare individuals for whom daily sound is an unwelcome Babel of discordant noise, setting my nerves on edge and no doubt shortening my life span. At home, at work, on the way to work or home (MUST car stereos have the capability to be so loud?!), out and about almost anywhere - with a few exceptions, such as the Chicago Botanic Garden - EVERYTHING IS SO LOUD!

Phew. Sorry about that. Didn't mean to shout...

On the other hand, I'm afflicted by very bad tinnitus (mostly in my left ear), so total silence can likewise drive me bonkers. So, what's the solution? Something Prochnik lists as a "bad" thing - the white noise machine. Either that, or the steady humming of a fan, which is pretty much the same thing.

That makes me a sufferer of both noise and a complete lack of noise, both of which subjects were covered beautifully in Prochnik's book. I'm just glad to know I'm not the only one out there with such an aversion to noise in general, that I consider frequent solitude perfection and, also, I'm not alone in wanting to grab cell phones and toss them out windows.

A lovely book celebrating something we all take too much for granted - peace and quiet.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Amy Henry TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise

One recent beautiful day, I was curled up with a book outside, enjoying the change in the light and air of fall, with a fat orange cat on my lap. The baby was asleep, work was done, and it was finally a chance to relax. It was bliss. All was quiet. Quiet, until an extremely loud dirt bike, without a muffler, began doing circuits of the road below my house. I went from peaceful and content to plotting murder in mere seconds...just the whine of the engine made my teeth ache. The fact I was reading this book made the noise all the more relevant.

George Prochnik takes a subject that is universally annoying and studies it in ways that are both fascinating and frightening. He examines the sounds, both in volume and type, that trigger aggression (see dirt bike above). In one chapter he discusses scientists who study the cries of infants that makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse (and what can be done for prevention). He takes the research further and shows how some sounds are actually used in torture (see dirt bike above). For example, prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are sometimes forced to listen to the cries of screaming infants overlaid with a track of repeating Meow Mix commercials.

He also investigates where sound is used for manipulation in a retail setting. He meets with the sound designers behind Abercrombie & Fitch, who intentionally design the retail space to flood the ears with rapid, pulsating music to mimic a rave or nightclub. The lights are intentionally dim, so that a customer feels more like they are at a party than a store, and they'll likely pay less attention to the price tag and more attention to the atmosphere.
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