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the daily review, tue., june 8

George Prochnik

I long for silence the way the thirsty long for water, the way the weary long for sleep. Thus, it was with great interest that I picked up kindred spirit George Prochnik's intriguing exploration into the frontiers of noise and silence - a delightful examination of why and how our society has fallen in love with noise and what we are losing in the process - mentally, physically and spiritually.

Noise pollution takes a great toll on us, and this book hones in on the problems with alarming accuracy: heart disease, shortened life span, psychosis, anti-social behaviour, insomnia; even a possible connection between noise and autism/ADD. (Thank heavens for Prochnik's witty, gently humorous style or this might be heavy going indeed.)

And yet, even with noise's obvious drawbacks, we seem more and more addicted, partly in response to other people's noise, but also as some sort of self-stimulation, or high. We use iPods to block out unwanted sounds, but also to rev ourselves up for exercise or some other adrenalin-producing activity. We use white noise machines to block out traffic or dogs or a snoring partner, but turn on televisions and radios as soon as we walk into a room, so we don't feel so alone.

Prochnik introduces us to the world of retail "sound branding" where soundscapes in stores like Abercrombie & Fitch are designed to attract a certain age and type of clientele and then put them in a psychological state more vulnerable to marketing. I was reminded of the time in a restaurant where I noticed everyone, me included, eating with a kind of determined rapid-fire vigour. I realized Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries was pumping through the sound system.

One over-long chapter talks about boom-car enthusiasts: folks who indulge in the "sport" of boom-cars, equipping their automobiles with audio equipment loud enough to, literally, blow out the windshield. Apparently there is some sensual thrill to experiencing sound so loud the author describes it "…as if I had been launched in thunder and fire from an ejector seat - only the seat hadn't ejected and I remained inside the thunder and fire. I felt my organs collapsing." God spare me.

Prochnik travels the world and talks to a wide swath of people, including doctors, neuroscientists, acoustical engineers, architects (there's a fascinating section on Deaf Space and what we could learn from people who live in silence), monks, and activists, as well as historical figures.

One of the most entertaining parts of the book concerns Julia Barnett Rice, New York City's "Queen of Silence," who started the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise in 1906. The way she dealt with tooting tugboats is fascinating, but the way she dealt with rowdy young ruffians around hospitals is inspirational in its diplomatic brilliance. I won't give it away, except to say a lot of young toughs were suddenly walking around sporting badges with the word "Humanity!" stamped on them, shushing people right, left and centre. Bravo!

The best parts of the book were those passages of "silent interlude" where the author refreshes himself by dipping back into silence. He asks, "Where's the culture pulling everyone? Now turn around and walk the other way. Keep walking." He visits cemeteries, parks and churches in New York City - Paley Park, Greenacre Park, St. Bartholomew's and St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue.

In a Trappist monastery, Prochnik is invited to a subterranean chapel, generally reserved for the monks' silent prayer. He is told by Alberic, the monk, that, "Silence is for bumping into yourself." True, but that often leads to more... Sure enough, there, in the dark, lit only by a single candle, Prochnik experiences a moment of transcendence in which he senses something vast and mysterious, greater than himself. He says, "I'd been searching for some kind of clear, encapsulated lesson in the silence - something I could take home with me. But what I'd received instead was a powerful reminder of the good that can come from not knowing, from lingering where the mind keeps reaching outward."

What is unknown, Prochnik says, is the wonder of the world around us, for we are closed off from it by clamour and clatter. We won't quiet our world by demonizing noisemakers, but by making silence more attractive. Perhaps we can start here - in our loud-mouth society full of shrieking pundits, how revolutionary silence feels.

Lauren B. Davis's most recent novel is The Radiant City. She spends most of the day wearing earplugs and muttering, "What IS that noise?"