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In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise Paperback – April 5, 2011
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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
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.
Top Customer Reviews
I jog in the morning between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. before the expressway (just less than a mile from our housing development) expresses its presence by the low and fairly constant cacophony of truck and automobile noise and between the times when trains, passing through our small village (about 3 or 4 miles from our house) signal their warning at each intersection. In general, it is a time of near silence when few, if any, other cars are on the roads and no other joggers break my concentration.
I am often asked why I jog at such an early hour, and the comfort of the silence (and dark) easily justify the choice. It is a time away from the various assaults on my senses of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, talkaholics, cars with boom boxes, traffic, trains, planes, and the continually annoying din of the media.
Why is my experience relevant to this book review? Because I -- or my experience -- could have been just one more adventure the author, Prochnik, made in his "pursuit of silence." In his book, Prochnik suggests "that silence can exert a positive influence on our individual lives and our relationship to the world" (p. 14). I support that conclusion with more than 30 years of jogging experience as evidence.Read more ›
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.
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
First I want to thank Mr. Prochnik for writing this highly intelligent treatise on the love/hate relationship of sound and ear, and for including as many different angles and... Read morePublished 13 months ago by Kieran F. Johnston
To some, this book may seem like making a great deal of noise over the virtues of silence. Although this book might have been more effective if it had been edited down to an essay,... Read morePublished 22 months ago by Hande Z
If you're sick of people who make noise and want some help fighting them, this isn't the greatest book. Read morePublished 23 months ago by AJ CA
A thought provoking book, but disappointing in that the reader reaches the crux of the subject under discussion only in the last part of the book. Read morePublished on July 4, 2014 by Socrates
I chose this book for our book club discussion group. I am glad I did because I now understand that those of us who are in pursuit of silence can actually find it. Read morePublished on March 23, 2014 by Amazon Customer
This was recommended for my english class but is not something that we needed. I would not have purchased it because i am a nursing major but if I were an english major i would... Read morePublished on March 5, 2014 by Melinda Yost
I'm still working on this one but he reinforces my own pursuit of silence. I believe that noise is driving us all slightly crazy.Published on December 14, 2013 by Mary G. Lundy
AS a former kindergarten teacher, I have had to adjust to a lot of noise. I wonder if Mr. Prochnik might be a bit of an Asbergers person. Read morePublished on August 17, 2013 by Nansterj