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
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