Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Sounds of Silence

In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, George Prochnik, Doubleday, 352 pages

Shorelines, though never silent, are often quiet. Beneath the rumble of the surf, the lapping of wavelets, the keening of gulls, the whoosh of wind, is a quiet that we can hear perfectly well. Even if you add to the soundscape a cacophony of kids, a barking dog, and the whine of a motorboat, there’s enough quiet in the ocean to cut the noise down to size.

The distinction between silence and quiet is pretty easy. Few people enjoy an utter absence of sound. In fact, most feel distress when deprived of low-level background noise. In extreme cases, as when a man is put into the total silence of a sensory deprivation chamber, the sounds of his own body become nightmarishly loud and he is soon overcome with auditory hallucinations. True silence is also physically disorienting to those who suffer a sudden loss of hearing. The disappearance of ambient sound somehow makes the world impenetrable. We need quiet, not silence.

George Prochnik realizes this, but nonetheless titled his new book on the clamor of contemporary life In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. Prochnik, who lives in loud Brooklyn and works in louder Manhattan, is distressed by the urban roar that drowns out the particularity of small sounds. So he retreats, he tells us, to “pocket parks” in the city, where the Great Noisiness is kept at bay by splashing water, architectural nooks, and walls of enforced serenity. I tried one out last week, a few blocks from the clanking dungeon of the 50th Street subway station, and sure enough, it worked. The city isn’t blotted out, but its noise is transformed into the ocean beyond the dunes.

If the word “silence” in the title is a bit misleading, the word “pursuit” is dead on. Prochnik does just about everything but descend into his own crypt in search of his quarry. He visits the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa, to hear the silence of Trappist monks in the depths of winter. He attends a Quaker meeting in Brooklyn to hear the Friends not speaking. He travels to a Dearborn, Michigan, convention of noise control experts (“Noise-Con 2008”) and chats up the soundproofers. He delves through the foghorn history of urban noise abatement activists, starting with the “Queen of Silence,” Julia Barnett Rice, who in 1905 declared war on Hudson River tugboat captains who disturbed her rest in her Riverside Drive mansion by hooting to one another through the night. Rice was tireless in her campaign. After her Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noises succeeded in gagging the tugboats, she moved on to dampening the noise around NYC hospitals—a brilliant tactic for her real goal of silencing the city’s noisy children.

Rice herself, however, fell silent and the Society was suppressed by an unlooked for new source of auditory aggravation: motor vehicle traffic. As it happened, her husband Isaac, says Prochnik, was “reportedly the first private individual in New York City to own an automobile.”

Thanks a lot, Isaac. Perhaps for their respective contributions to sporadic quiet and incessant noise we should dedicate to the husband and wife a special amped-up broadcast of the late Ronnie Dio, frontman for the heavy metal band Black Sabbath, singing “Heaven and Hell.”

Isaac Rice as a pioneer of public loudness suits another side of Prochnik’s quest, his effort to understand the aficionados of noise. That takes Prochnik to those antechambers of hell, the retail clothing stores that pump high-pressure noises among the racks of trendy threads. He visits “the sonic abyss” of Abercrombie & Fitch at a mall in Austin and at its flagship abyss on Fifth Avenue. Abercrombie & Fitch is perhaps best known for its semi-pornographic advertisements and it turns out there is a connection between cavorting nudes and deafening din. Sound “at a truly punishing level” is (at least for some) hot, exciting, and sexy.

Prochnik is an excellent Virgil for this descent into the Inferno, not least because he takes us right to the perpetrators. In this case, he interviews Leanne Flask, an executive of DMX, the company that “designed” Abercrombie & Fitch’s “store sound.” DMX does “acoustical branding” and Flask explains that the Abercrombie sound is “very uplifting” and meant to convey to the young shoppers, “I’m going to start my day in a club!” As she says this, Prochnik observes, “she adopted the expression of someone being ecstatically strangled.”

Flask takes Prochnik to other circles of this inferno and explains that loudness isn’t simply about sex. As they visit another trendy clothing store, The Limited, Prochnik registers the noise as “like Abercrombie & Fitch on a light Zoloft regimen.” But Flask unpacks the store-specific meaning: “All the energy of the loudness makes you feel more energetic. … It feels like excitement, and starts a whole reaction of people. There’s a circuit of energy!”

Prochnik’s willingness to travel upriver into the heart of loudness is commendable. Leaving the clothing stores behind, he ventures deeper into the Loud and the Louder—loud restaurants, where the entrees are pureed by noise, and loud stadiums, specially designed to amplify the uproar of the crowd. And then he reaches the Kurtzian heart of loudness, Explosive Sound and Video, the headquarters of Tommy, “who owns the loudest music-playing, driving vehicle in the world” and hosts competitions for “boom cars.”

These are those cars and trucks that have been customized into sonic assault weapons capable of cranking out 140 decibels and more. Prochnik quotes an audiologist who says that a single exposure to such sounds can cause permanent hearing loss. But boom-car enthusiasts are not deterred by little things like that. Tommy McKinnie’s truck, the Loch Ness Monster (“because you always hear stories about it, but you never see it”) can sound off in the 160+ decibel range for a whole minute.

The limiting factor is that at this level of loudness the vehicle itself begins to disintegrate. Boom-car hobbyists, for example, are used to replacing their sound-shattered windshields several times a year.

Prochnik’s previous book, Putnam Camp, described Sigmund Freud’s 1909 sojourn in the Adirondacks as a guest of Prochnik’s own grandfather, the psychologist James Jackson Putnam. It is a whimsical, erudite exploration of the intertwining of personalities, intellectual developments, and culture—a blend that he carries off in this new book, too. Prochnik has an excellent ear for good stories, but a book like this sits perilously close to the unlovely neighborhoods of whininess and precious self-regard. Should we really care that wheezing bus brakes and trucks rattling manhole covers disturb his Brooklyn repose? There are times when the reader wants Prochnik to man up and get over to the NASCAR track. A book that contains the sentence beginning, “I cherish the memory of the time I spent on a silent retreat at an ashram,” isn’t for everybody. Among his most cringe-inducing confessions is his account of trooping around Columbus Circle in New York with a group that practices “spontaneous group meditation.” At a pre-arranged signal they “dropped into a sitting position on a street corner” and closed their eyes to listen to the din.

Prochnik writes as a self-declared “progressive,” and is warm in his sympathies for non-Western cultures and large-scale government interventions. Japanese tea gardens and European central planning to “map” urban noise appeal to him equally. He seems at times a bit credulous, as in reporting a tribe southwest of Khartoum with hearing so keen that individuals can “carry on a conversation in a soft voice with their backs turned” at a distance of a football field. One of his numerous threads is the science of hearing, and we get some details about such matters as the ratio of head width to the frequency of sound an animal can hear. Prochnik strains to integrate all this stuff but the book is, in its own quiet way, rather noisy.

So what is the cultural significance of all this? Have we become a culture of loudness and noise, and done so at the expense of our inner lives? Prochnik’s final analogy is to liken changing the way Americans hear to the campaign to change the way we eat. He calls for a movement to “educate” combined with a parallel operation to create “healthier” options. While I am with him on the point that we need more quiet in our lives, his policy answers aren’t much of a draw. Seize money from drug dealers and gunrunners, he proposes, and use it to “buy up a few dozen fast-food franchises that can be turned into contemporary quiet houses.” Build Zen gardens in community recreation centers. Give scholarships to kids to write essays in praise of silence. Host “Quiet Parties”—the loud capitals are his.

I’d like to say we need more quiet in our lives, but these proposals give me a brand new appreciation of boom-car rallies. There is something intrinsically loud about America that ought to remain that way. 

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.