Noise, The Context of Silence: TWO BOOKS

In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, by George Prochnik. New York, Doubleday, 2010.

From the opening page, we follow the author Prochnik at a whirlwind pace as he talks to one expert after another, learns a fact or two, then rushes off to meet another expert -- a pace maintained for nearly 300 pages. It fits a literal sense of the title's sense of a pursuit. Intriguing questions do surface but are just introduced.

But at least the author does ask a plethora of intriguing questions, centered around the neural and psychological ramifications of noise and silence. Was there a sound at the Big Bang? What does evolutionary anthropology tell us about why we find the sound of rainfall soothing, or loud and screeching sounds so provoking of uneasiness? What did Pythagoras discover in the mathematics of music? Did Darwin see the earthworm's silence as a foreshadowing of the farmer's hand-plow?

Readers will enjoy the author's visit to a monastery and the the monks' reflections on "holy leisure" and the notion that the only adequate worship of God can be in silence.  Favorite moments are Prochnik's visit to a Manhattan "pocket park," his long conversation with a director of Portland (Oregon) Japanese Garden, and the views of staff and students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. At the Garden, he learns about Japanese concepts of silence and the tea ceremony. At Gallaudet he discusses Deaf culture (capitalized) and how the deaf appreciate architecture and design in terms of space, not sound. Also described is the career of Theodor Lessing and his early 20th century noise abatement campaign in Germany. There are many forays into other realms of noise and silence, but these stand out.

The casual reader may be a bit overwhelmed by the fast pace of the book, belying the slow pace suggested by a title with the word "silence" so prominent. As Prochnik himself summarizes:

Before I set out, I would never have imagined that the mammalian middle ear evolved from the jawbone; that the sound of the big band might resemble a gathering scream, that a tea ceremony could become a theater of silences; or that the Deaf perspective on silence could reveal the possibilities of more attentive sensory awareness for everyone. I was blessed with the opportunity to go out and listen to a few dozen places, people, and stories that I never dreamed existed.

One can appreciate the author's journey and measure the telling of it as an exploration into the prerequisites of silence, the reality of noise.

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, by Garret Keizer. New York, Public Affairs, 2010.

Where Prochnik tends to the neural and psychological aspects of noise and silence, Keizer pursues the social, economic, and political context. Unwanted sound is a social phenomenon, he argues, and requires an understanding of the social context in order to appreciate the issues involved.

Unlike Prochnik, Keizer's jaunts and interviews are fewer but more productive. Nor does he linger around issues of silence, instead plunging into the sociology of noise. Noise, says Keizer, is political. It permeates our lives top to bottom, from contrived power chatter delivered on high by authorities to the street noise expressions of indifference, arrogance, resentment and anger -- but also of community and celebration. Exemption from unwanted sound is a right of everyone, but the overlooked fact is that noise is chiefly being forced downward from industry, technology, media, entertainment, and disinformation sources.

Noise has gone global. Even the word global has a noisy, self-important ring to it, loud with superlatives and grand designs, a din of jumbo jets and electronic twitter, the staccato fire of insurgency and counterinsurgency, filling every silence on earth.

And as a Dutch anti-noise advocate told Keizer:

"Everybody's looking for silence. And they go to workshops. They go to silent retreats in India. And they take a plane and they fly over my house. Wow! Silence!"

Keizer offers a useful brief history of noise from the industrial age to the present ("The Age of Tinnitus"), peppered with provocative facts about hearing loss from industrial factories to the use of noise in war and torture. He dissects social conditions and doesn't shrink from recommending changes, concluding simply that we need to live more quietly, in quieter places and occupations, in settings that promote conviviality and the chance for all to do their best in life.

With Prochnik and Keizer we have a prolegomena to the topic of noise, if not silence. They address society at large, but offer a glimpse into criteria that an individual can begin to apply to a life that is quieter, if not silent.