[20 July 2010]
At nighttime in his Brooklyn home, George Prochnik is sometimes awakened by the sound of traffic helicopters. In the daytime – often, the very early daytime – he hears the drillings and hammerings of construction crews and the beats from the workers’ boom boxes. At any time, soundwaves from wailing sirens, and screeching bus brakes, and partying neighbors bounce off the streets, into his windows. A few years ago, Prochnik, always a fan of quiet, realized that the noisy environment was threatening to turn him into an ever-grumbling crank.
Nobody likes a whiner, so Prochnik decided to spend his energies finding positive reasons to aspire to silence. The resulting research comes together splendidly, and not at all crankily, in his latest book In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise.
From the first few pages, two things become clear: Prochnik is writing with genuine passion and concern for today’s auditory landscapes (those traffic helicopters really made an impression) and; he undertook an extensive fact-finding mission. The book is bursting with scientific studies, interviews with doctors and other learned listeners, historical headlines and scenes from the current realm of sound policy. Thankfully, In Pursuit of Silence never succumbs to the stuffiness that sometimes seems inherent in such library-research-laden works.
Determined to launch his quest with a positive bent, he begins by touching on what there is to be gained from quiet. The reader is treated to Prochnik’s pleasant anecdotes of listening games with his son and a thoughtful afternoon spent with a book, both delivered in the author’s thoughtfully observant voice that the reader imagines can only be soft-spoken and gentle.
Prochnik also delves into more concrete reasons for soundlessness. Backing up his personal experiences on the pros of quiet, he references studies showing that regular silent meditation improves the clarity and efficiency of brain processing and that the peak of humans’ positive brain activity actually occurs in the beats of silence between sounds.
Despite the rosy start to his positive pursuit, Prochnik knows he must face the darker side of the equation: that all these silent benefits are in peril in today’s population-exploding, increasingly noisy world.
The sounds people hear today are hurting them in a very physical way, Prochnik writes, even when that danger is compared with more talked-about health threats like smoking and climate change. One particularly astounding statistic comes from a 2008 report from the World Health Organization, which found that the overall risk to people’s health from road traffic noise is 40 percent higher than that from air pollution. Excessive noise can interrupt healthy cardiac function, experts tell Prochnik, and it can make a mess of mental health as it’s linked to higher stress levels and shorter attention spans, among other undesirable side effects.
Humans are not wired for absorbing the sound they do today, Prochnik suggests, pointing to what he calls a very quiet natural world. One scientist tells the author that animals are mostly hushed and that a lion’s roar is an exceptional event, but anyone who has watched a few horn-clashing, monkey-squealing nature programs might not fully come around to this argument.
Still, there is no question that excessive noise is damaging. The danger is especially acute for children, as Prochnik learns from a conversation with one brain specialist who had researched the effect that homes with constant background noise, like a loud television, have on still-developing minds. Kids raised in this way have dramatically slower capacities to process language, the expert says.
These harrowing tales leave the reader with little doubt of the book’s relevance, and may even send her reaching for the ear plugs, lest she end up like one woman Prochnik interviewed who suddenly became deaf because prolonged sound exposure had stimulated the growth of tumors in her ears.
So troubling is industrial noise to some people that the home soundproofing industry is booming, as Prochnik learned at the conference Noise-Con 2008. Soundproofing specialists pitched their latest wares to Protchnik, explaining that by coating all surfaces with their tiles, foams and films, his home could be a perfect fortress of silence. Still, even the quiet-loving writer concludes he’d rather not exchange his connection to the outer world for a completely peaceful space.
Prochnik makes good use of the irony that the noise people are trying to escape is the same noise they, or at least their society, have created. The sound of engines from cars and planes is a major topic in the book, as is the constant flow of the more intimate, but still too-loud music emanating from millions of iPods each day. Ironically in his pursuit of silence, Prochnik pursues noise, as well—and thus meets a more serious lot of noisemakers: people who enter their car stereo systems in competitions where the only qualifying factor is decibel level.
Refreshingly, Prochnik never veers into the preachy or pedantic and serves no side of judgment with his expositions of people who love the noise they make.
His frustration does come through, however—loud and clear—in the lack of actionable legal policy on noise control. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has had a noise pollution regulation on the books for sometime, it is rarely enforced. The European Union, which has required that its member states spend much moolah on compiling data on noise emissions, still has no requirement that states take any action to clamp down on sound. It’s a logical fallacy that frustrates the reader, as well.
One of the greatest strengths of the book is the astounding variety of perspectives, both literal and abstract, that Prochnik takes on in his pursuit of the wide range of topics of sound and silence. Without exception, he walks down fascinating avenues of examination, offering factoids and rich thoughts as he takes in the sonic tones of a shopping mall, several city parks, a Zen garden, a Quaker Friends House, a university for the Deaf, and the aforementioned competition for the biggest noise in car stereo systems.
In the end, Prochnik urges for more dedication of resources to silent spaces. He advocates established quiet hours at community centers and personal moments of silence in individual lives. Despite all the challenges to a quiet-seeking soul, the author sustains an enduring hope that not all is lost and that the noise problem may actually get better. He notes that in his own pursuit, he managed to find more than a few beats of silence in parks, in gardens, and blissfully, at home.
For the reader, these small successes In Pursuit of Silence are vital ones, as the search for quiet solace may prove catching.