An uncanny convergence: three new books on noise

by Mary Ellen Eagan

That’s right – three new books that explore noise and its impact on society:  The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (PublicAffairs) by Garrett Keizer, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence(Scribner), by George Michelsen Foy; and In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise(Doubleday), by George Prochnik.  We at HMMH have agreed to read and review all three, but I’ve just read a review in the New York Times – no doubt a more authoritative source.

I read the Prochnik book last week – ironically, on an airplane, with my Bosenoise-cancelling headphones masking the interior cabin noise.  Prochnik’s goal seems not to be to educate us about how noisy the world is, but to advocate for more places of silence.  He’s got a great blog, too, that explores all kinds of issues related to noise and silence – historical campaigns against noise, videos, poetry, and one of my favorite authors, Anaïs Nin

Prochnik’s work reminds me of a story my grandmother once told at a public meeting on noise in the neighborhood where she lived her entire 90 years.  It goes something like this:  “When I was a little girl, the street was cobbled, and the horses and milk trucks would clomp up and down all day.  Then came the cars and the coal trucks, with no mufflers.  And “the Elevated” was only a few blocks away, not to mention the noise from the brewery around the corner (Haffenreffers, now the home of Sam Adams).  Eventually, cars got rubber tires, and the El went underground.  If you ask me, things are just getting quieter all the time.”

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But I digress – and thanks for indulging me this week after Mother’s Day.

I’m now halfway through the Keizer book, and find I agree with Dwight Garner of the Times – Keizer is ruthless in his examination of the cultural baggage around noisy places, and uses noise as a metaphor for many of society’s larger problems.  He interviewed several of us at HMMH while he was researching the book, and we found it to be a fascinating way to spend an afternoon – for us noise geeks, anyway.  As Andrew Sullivan would say, here’s the ‘money quote’:  “whenever you have ten noise experts in a room you have something like a renaissance”.  Love it!  But then, I’m biased.  And here’s where I’ll sign off, as Nick Miller plans to wax much more poetically on this book. 

I’ll check back in when I’ve finished all three.

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