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Book Review: In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik

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It seems we have lost the ability to stare into space and think without distraction; without noise pulling us into someone else’s reality, Our future does not offer any glamorous solutions unless we are willing to appreciate the value of silence, in an increasingly noisy society. New York can never claim to be the city that never beeps, but if this author can find an oasis of quiet in Manhattan, surely we can do the same in our world.

Find a quiet corner and embrace In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.

Author George Prochnik traveled the country to find out if there is any real value in silence, and if so, how to cultivate more. He surveyed a delightful assortment of people at both ends of the noise dichotomy, including astronauts, race car drivers and monks.

Among the virtues of silence, we learn how it enhances our powers of attention, and often when we’re listening, we’re waiting for the noise to stop, so we can process our thoughts. And, if the noise never stops, we lose the opportunities to think. Silence may also carry some of the replenishing power of sleep, proving a daytime sound-break can be restful.

An interesting chapter in In Pursuit of Silence covers the author’s experience among contemplative Trappist monks in a desert monastery in winter, where he went seeking mindfulness, and reaching the silence that facilitates our inner quiet. Prochnik also pursued extensive research on the concept of hearing, the science behind why we hear, and the effects of unpleasant sounds. The word “noise,” in fact, is derived from “nausea,” specifically seasickness and the sense of disorientation it causes.

In Pursuit of Silence stays with you, as you recall your own aversion to noise in public places. Since the early uses of Muzak to speed up worker’s pace, we’ve grown, or groaned, to live amid the horrible decibel level of excessive noise in public places. The author documents what he learned about the shopping experience at Abercrombie & Fitch and the firms that design music and sounds intended to convey energy and fun.

For those of us who try to maintain our home as an oasis of quiet, there is a charming story in In Pursuit of Silence about the quietest house in the world. This is fascinating reading for those interested in the human psyche, architecture, design, and the art of defining our living space.

The concepts of silence and noise control in In Pursuit of Silence may be a fantasy, but should be of extreme interest to modern families, sociologists, youth, parents, urban planners, travelers, and those who choose a home or relocate based only on climate and economic factors.

Rather than become of society of people who attempt to soundproof their personal lives, Prochnik suggests we instead must look to changes in public policy, “to fight small battles and big wars” to combat noise. “We have to drive home the damage noise does to everyone and demand our right to live lives that are noise-free just as we have a right to smoke-free environments.”

“If we want more silence … we have to build spaces that harbor silence just as we create structures to facilitate other pursuits. … Silence needs a home in the here and now.”

In Pursuit of Silence is a delight to read, especially when you can garner some quiet moments to think about the concepts Prochnik raises. His efforts to seek out silence were not without reward. He concludes “one value of silence was as a restorative of the unknown.” And, that is what we are increasingly lacking; “the value of quiet as a channel to reflection and awe.”

Society does have room to implement some of Prochnik’s easier solutions, such as designating quiet time one evening a week in neighborhood recreation centers, creating gardens in empty urban lots, and providing scholarships to students who would champion the cause of quiet in an increasingly jangled world. Giving young people a way to appreciate the value of quiet is likely the only way we will have a future with less noise, from traffic to invasive personal habits in public spaces, over-building and an environment that offers no retreat from noise.

By now, you may feel a sudden longing to get away to think. Prochnik’s advice is simple. “Step away from the crowds and noise to find the interior of the place where you live. There must be a road no one bothers to drive, a bench where no one sits.” He offers suggestions for finding these oases in both large and small towns. “Just remember to keep asking, where’s the culture pulling everyone? Now turn around and walk the other way. Keep walking.”

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About Helen Gallagher