The New York Times Book Review, May 30, 2010.

Noises Off

The Quest for Absolute Silence
By George Michelsen Foy
196 pp. Scribner. $24

A Book About Noise
By Garret Keizer
385 pp. PublicAffairs. $27.95

Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
By George Prochnik
329 pp. Doubleday. $26

Writers are notoriously noise-averse, perhaps none more so than the historian Thomas Carlyle. “SILENCE, SILENCE: in a thousand senses I proclaim the indispensable worth of Silence, our only safe dwelling-place often,” he wrote a friend in 1840. A few years later, after his neighbor in London’s Chelsea district added a flock of “demon fowl” to his yard, Carlyle resolved to defend himself against the clamor of roosters, organ grinders, the neighbor’s piano, etc., by adding a floor to his house for a sound-proof study. It didn’t work: with certain sounds shut out, others became more audible – distant whistles among them. “The silent room is the noisiest room in the house,” his wife, Jane, observed.

So it might not surprise that a writer has just come out with a book about the problem of noise. But what does it mean that three have done so, within barely a month? Has a sonic tipping point been reached?

I do know that each of these writers had me saying, “I know just what you mean,” within the first few pages. With George Michelsen Foy, it was a moment, described in the first paragraphs of “Zero Decibels,” that took place on the uptown platform of the Broadway local at the 79th Street station. A perfect storm of subway noise enveloped him when all four trains (two express and two local) screamed through the station at the same time. He put his hands over his ears “and screwed my face into the scrunched expression of a root-canal patient. I usually despise people who do that on subway platforms, . . . who cough if someone is smoking across the street, who wear cardigans and bicycle clips; for God’s sake, if you’re so delicate, move to an ashram! But here I was doing the same thing.”

With George Prochnik, it came on the second page of “In Pursuit of Silence,” when he says he has had a “passion for quiet as long as I can remember.” Worried that he’s a borderline “noise crank,” he admits to having “snitched on contractors who started work early” and “battled neighbors who hold large parties.” “My most notorious moment,” he confesses, “occurred when I called our cable company to come check out the volume of sound that the DVR made when it was turned off. I wasn’t home when the cable man showed up, and my wife was forced to try and help him make out the faint clicking projecting from deep inside the machine. (“There can you – there, no – wait, I think that’s it. . . .) It’s an incident I will never live down.” (Reviewer’s confession: I can relate to Prochnik because I did exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reason.)

Garret Keizer waits until Page 11 of his book to tell us about his relationship with noise, but there’s really no conceit here about seeking silence. Rather, “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want” is a meditation on just that: the unreconciled gap between our desire to do things like fly in airplanes and our misery over how loud the associated racket can be.

It can be no surprise that all three of these writers touch on many of the same loud spots of the history of sound. Each mentions Carlyle and his study, for example. Prochnik and Keizer cite the key role loudspeakers are thought to have played in the rise of Hitler. Foy and Keizer both mention Julia Barnett Rice, who campaigned against tugboat whistles at the turn of the 20th century and started New York’s Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. In their quests for quiet, Foy and Prochnik both interview astronauts (who know the silence – and sounds – of space) and meditate with monks in monasteries. They consult with the makers of sound-measuring devices (Foy even purchases a portable unit, which becomes his companion for the duration of the book). Foy and Prochnik discuss the etymology of the word “silence”; Keizer does the same with “noise.” Foy and Prochnik also review the evolution of hearing and common problems, including tinnitus, consulting with an array of audiologists and ear, nose and throat specialists, none better drawn than the professor of otolaryngology at New York University whom Prochnik mocks and compliments in the same breath: “Given his profession, it’s impossible not to notice the handsome Svirsky’s enormous Vulcan ears.”

But where their paths diverge, things get more interesting. Foy is the most self-revelatory and memoirish. He admits that his “lust for silence is only the point man for a platoon of other worries.” The reader can’t help being impressed by how many quiet places fail to provide the real quiet he seeks. Not his bath tub, not the commercial isolation tank, not the catacombs beneath Paris, not Joseph Pulitzer’s sound-insulated bedroom on the Upper East Side, not a mine shaft 7,000 feet below the surface of Ontario – all of these have some noise, often a tinge of the urban hum he refers to as “monster breath.” Only enclosure in a special “anechoic” chamber at a lab in Minneapolis brings him close to what he’s after, but even there Foy hears something (does it come from his own body?) and wonders if true silence is findable.

Prochnik’s book is the most amusing, polished and magazine-y. “I’ve worn so many earplugs (powerful, swimming-pool-blue Hearos from the Xtreme Protection Series) that if they were laid end to end they’d probably manage to extend all the way around a New York City block.” He has also written the single most entertaining chapter in these books: “Soundkill,” an account of a competition between boom-car drivers in central Florida. The meet takes place in the parking lot of Explosive Sound and Video, the domain of the world champion Tommy McKinnie, the King of Bass (and characters like MP3 Pimp and Big Red’s Lady). Here, cars packed with huge sound systems emit blasts that cause windshields to shatter, clothes to flap against one’s skin and loose hair to fly up in the air.

Even so, I found that much of Prochnik’s and Foy’s books did not stick with me; both cover perhaps too many basses, er, bases. It’s Keizer, a contributing editor for Harper’s, who has really wrestled with the noise question and comes away with the most to say. Much of it is cultural analysis, beginning with the observation “A person who says ‘My noise is my right’ basically means ‘Your ear is my hole.’ ” He questions why American culture in general seems to be on the loud side, examines “the historic relationship between noise and violence, between the arrogance of power and contempt for the weak.” He happily cites other sources in generous footnotes, everyone from the music critic Alex Ross to the historian Emily Thompson, who was “undoubtedly correct in pointing to the concept of ‘noise pollution’ as an outgrowth of the environmentalist mind-set that emerged in the 1970s.”

What kept me engaged in Keizer’s book was a succession of unexpected ideas about the links between noise, politics and technology. If there is a villain behind our era of noisiness, Keizer suggests, it is Edison’s bulb: “The electric light did for the colonization of the soundscape what ‘guns, germs and steel’ did for the colonization of the globe – it opened up new territory.” He is sensitive to bombast (“Even the word global has a noisy, self-important ring to it, loud with superlatives and grand designs”) and appreciates silver linings: “One perhaps unintended effect of the 9/11 attacks was that people experienced the sound of a sky without aircraft. Several times now I have heard someone comment, always in the positive, on the uncanny celestial quiet of Sept. 12, 2001.”

Will the noise abate? Unlikely, suggests Keizer, who concentrates on the din produced by road, rail and air transit and cites a Dutch professor’s view that “noise is yet another ‘baked-in’ environmental effect of ‘the technology used and the physical infrastructure in which it is based.’ In other words, we can take noise out of our civilization with about the same ease as we can extract an egg from a cake.”

But that doesn’t necessarily imply surrender. Keizer’s book ends with a section, “Sitting Quietly at the Back: A Set of Resources,” which includes a list of organizations that deal with noise, as well as lines you can use in arguments with people who are too damn loud. For example, when they say, “You’re just complaining because you don’t like (my kind of) music,” you respond: “This is like saying that a person who opposes rape doesn’t like sex. In fact, there is convincing anecdotal evidence to suggest that people who truly love music are the most likely to resent having it forced on them.” Such ideas may not lead to victory in the battle against noise, but together they constitute an energizing manifesto that might at least help writers, and readers, win enough quiet to hear ourselves think.

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