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In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise

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In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise [Paperback]

George Prochnik
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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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Starting with a visit to a Trappist monastery and moving through shopping malls, city gardens, and even an extreme car-audio competition, Prochnik amiably escorts readers through investigations into silence and noise in modern life. Name-dropping everyone from the expected (Thoreau) to the surprising (spacewalker Suni Williams), he asks questions of those who design the sound systems that make us spend at Abercrombie & Fitch as well as sound-proofing equipment exhibitors at Noise Con. Some prescient history is discussed, including the successful battle for quiet by Julia Rice (the “Queen of Silence”) on the Hudson River in the early twentieth century. Mostly Prochnik stays in the present, where he finds that people are accepting higher and higher noise levels, even though they crave quiet. Perhaps most illuminating is his time spent with the Deaf community at Gallaudet University, who offer an unexpectedly different perspective as they live without the impact of noise. Elegant and understated, this thoughtful look at rarely considered aspects of everyday life reveals an often unrecognized cost of modern living. --Colleen Mondor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Elegant and eloquent."—New York Times
"[A] genial and informative study of the noisiness of modern life."—The New Republic 
“An adventure of profound listening.”—The New Yorker

"A global quest to find those who still value silence.”--NPR
“Sometimes alarming and often charming, it sings the praises of quiet and reports the uncertain progress in the war against noise.”—The Dallas Morning News
"Smart... Silence is good for falling asleep, but Prochnik's attentive take on noise keeps us wide awake."—Publishers Weekly

“Elegant and understated, this thoughtful look at rarely considered aspects of everyday life reveals an often unrecognized cost of modern living.—Booklist

"A lucid, balanced appreciation of silence's solemn tonic."—Kirkus

About the Author

GEORGE PROCHNIK is the author of Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” pick and winner of a 2007 Gradiva Award. He has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Playboy, and Cabinet magazine, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One    

Listening for the Unknown    

On my second night in the monastery, I heard the silence. I was inside the church: a beautiful, vast chamber of limestone blocks that resemble lumpy oatmeal and were quarried from the Iowan earth by the monks themselves in the mid-nineteenth century. Themonks had finished compline, the last of the day's seven prayer services, and had filed off into the inner recesses of the monastery, where they would observe the Great Silence, speaking to no one until after mass the next morning. The last of the monks toleave had switched off the lights above the choir, and then the light over the lectern. Though the section of visitors' pews where I sat still had a little illumination, the body of the church was now in total blackness except for the faint flickering of avotive candle suspended high in the distance against the far wall. For the first quarter hour, a few worshippers remained on the benches around me.  

Although I sat very quietly, I found my mind busy and loud. Mostly I was reflecting on the service I had just heard, which Brother Alberic, my gracious liaison to the world of the monastery, had described as a kind of lullaby. Compline is lovely, and Iwas frustrated that I had not been able to find it more profound. These weren't my prayers. I yearned only for more quiet. My thoughts were noisy enough that I half expected to see them break out of my skull and begin dancing a musical number up and down thewooden benches.  

Soon the other worshippers departed and I was left alone. For a moment or two, my experience was of literal silence. Then, all at once, there came a ting, a tic, another tic, a tap, and a clang. The sounds came from all around the enormous dark church.They ranged from the verge of inaudibility to the violence of hammer blows; discrete chips of sound and reverberatory gonnngs. Out of nowhere, I was treated to a concert by the sound of heat in the pipes. It was a grand, slightly menacing sound that I had beenoblivious to not only during the prayer service but afterward in the din of my mental dithering. And it was worth that long opening pause. The ever-changing sonic punctuation of this empty space--which had first seemed soundless--gave me a tingling sense ofelevation. This is it, I told myself. Silence made everything resonate.  

And yet . . . Later that night when I retreated to my room, and my euphoria had subsided, I wondered why I had been affected so powerfully. Objectively, the only thing that had happened, after all, was that I had heard the metal of the pipes expandingand contracting as they heated and cooled. Why should that experience have made me feel that I was "hearing the silence" ? Why did I feel at that lonely hour that I had found what I was looking for when I came to the monastery?      

What brought me to the New Melleray Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, was the desire to learn from people who had made a lifelong commitment to devout silence. Trappist monks, a branch of the Cistercian order, do not make a vow of total silence, and today thereare times when they engage in conversation; but silence is their mother tongue. Saint Benedict, who is credited with founding Western Christian monasticism in the sixth century, most famously at Monte Cassino, southeast of Rome, wrote a document known as theRule that remains their guide to this day. In the Rule, monks are defined before all else as disciples, and the defining quality of the disciple is "to be silent and listen." Trappists are among the monks known as "contemplatives." Their interaction with theworld outside the monastery is minimal. Much of their worship is silent. They study in silence. They work almost entirely in silence. They eat primarily in silence. They pass each other in the monastery corridors without speaking. They retire at 8 pm to separatecells and rise at 3:15 am, when they gather in silence to pray. They avoid idle talk at all times. And even after the morning mass, throughout much of their demanding day, they are discouraged from speaking. Almost everything the Trappist does takes place insilence--is pressed close by its weight, or opens out onto that expanse, depending on how you look at it.  

Monks have, moreover, been at the pursuit for quite some time. Alberic remarked at one point that while it is often said that prostitution is the oldest profession, he believes that monks were around before there were prostitutes. This struck me as unlikely,but it still gave me pause.  

There was a personal stake in this journey as well: I needed a break. I'd had a hectic, noisy winter in the city--medically harrowing, filled with bills, the hassles of insurance claims, technology fiascos, and preschool worries. Plans to visit friendsin the country had fallen through several times. I'd tried to go to a Zen retreat in New England that taught the breath- and silence-based meditation practice of vipassana, only to be told at the last moment that although I could come and sit silently withthe retreatants, the guesthouse itself was overbooked and I'd have to stay in a bed-and-breakfast in town. The thought of beginning my daily practice over fussy French toast in a dining room packed with antiquers--where tasteful classical music would be pipedin to glaze over the gaps in conversation--didn't conduce to inner quiet. I had to get out of New York. Yet it was hard to arrange anything. Just because we have a nagging sense that silence is good for us doesn't make it any easier to actually commit to.  

I didn't think of quiet only as one of those overdue restoratives. Beyond the idea of wanting to learn something about the Trappist path and get away from the noise in my own life, I was hoping to find some truth in the silence of the monastery that Icould take back to New York. I'd packed a stack of books and volumes of photocopied pages representing different theological and philosophical traditions--everything from Martin Heidegger and Max Picard to kabbalistic disquisitions, an array of Buddhist tracts,and enough Christian monastic literature to envelop a monk from tonsure to toe. I needed help.      

The Desert    

From the air, the Great Plains in winter look like silence. During Advent week, when I made my trip to the monastery, the freeze of the landscape was so extreme that I couldn't imagine anything down below ever vibrating. On the approach to Dubuque, thesnow-covered squares of the farms resembled bathroom tiles painted over with primer that had bubbled and cracked. As we descended, the topographical buckling intensified; clumps of frayed brown trees bristled up through the white; little snow-crusted settlementstraced ghostly circuit boards. We flew past clusters of red farm buildings with steep, snow-caked roofs. Then we circled 180 degrees, a seam of pale orange-gold suddenly opened across an endless gray horizon, and the plane touched down.  

After we exchanged greetings, the first thing Alberic said was that I was in for some particularly ugly weather, even by Iowa standards. His voice was sad.  

Alberic is a solidly built man a little above average height, in his early fifties. He wears round, dark-framed glasses over dark, shadowed eyes. His black hair is cropped close to the skull, and whenever he is at home he wears a full-length white robebeneath a long black apron with a pointy hood. Alberic "entered the monastery to stay," as he puts it, in 1984. At the age of twenty-six, he was working as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, spending his free time paintingand living a kind of bare-bones bohemian existence. Though he'd grown up with some degree of wealth, mostly in the suburbs of Atlanta, he had never liked "stuff" and had always sought out a life of austerity. Raised a Catholic, and always seeking silence--hismother called him "the little Buddha"--Alberic had given up active involvement in the church long before moving to New York. After several years of work at the museum, mostly on the night watch, he began to sink into a spiritual malaise. Then he learned thathis sister was dying of cancer. Three weeks after her death, he was diagnosed with the same disease. "That was my wake-up call, and the beginning of my monastic formation," Alberic told me. "It took the cancer for me to look in the mirror and ask myself, 'Whatam I doing here?' "  

For the first year after his diagnosis, he struggled with fear. Then, as his odds for survival began to improve, he started a gradual return to the church that brought him, eventually, to visit a monastery near Atlanta. He got lost on the way and arrivedat night, just before compline. The church, when he entered, was quiet and dark. Then the monks walked in, their white cowls falling all the way to the floor. "I was transfixed," Alberic said. "I saw the truth about myself. I saw my monastic soul externalized.There was no sound, just the vague rustling of robes as they came in one or two at a time, to kneel or stand in their stall. All my life I'd met priests who tried to evangelize, but nothing came close to that moment. I had a sense of God walking right up tome." The experience, he said, "hijacked my life. I realized I'd always been a monk, and now I was home."      

"Monks live in the desert," Alberic told me, after we'd driven back to the monastery and had a chance to sit down together. "These giant, snow-covered fields are the desert. It's where monks have always been drawn. We come for a radical confrontation withourselves. Silence is for bumping into yourself. That's why monks pursue it. And that's also why people can't get into a car without turning the radio on, or walk into a room without switching on a television. They seek to avoid that confrontation. I thinkthis may be one reason for the incredible violence of that final surge during the Gulf ...
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