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Cartoon
Fall 2010

 New York Times reviews three new books about noise

By Jennifer W.

An encouraging sign that mainstream society is increasingly giving noise the serious attention it deserves was the publication last spring of no less than three new books about noise, all analyzed by the New York Times in two separate book reviews in May 2010.

They are: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, by Garret Keizer (Public Affairs); Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, by George Michelsen Foy (Scribner); and In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, by George Prochnik (Doubleday).

In his review “Meditations on Noise,” writer Dwight Garner observes “Our world is getting louder, a bone-crunching and I.Q.-lowering fact that is explored, in an uncanny convergence, in not one but three new books.” Garner relates, “I read all these books with an awareness of why my own nerves are increasingly jangled, why I mostly write (and often read) while wearing a clunky set of ear protectors, of the sort a particularly unhip airport runway worker in 1961 might have had clasped to his head.”

Ted Conover’s review “Noises Off” observes that writers are notoriously noise averse, citing historian Thomas Carlyle’s pleas for “SILENCE, SILENCE” in his writings of 1840. Conover similarly ponders the meaning behind three writers having published books about noise within barely a month. “Has a sonic tipping point been reached?” he wonders.

Both Garner and Conover compare the three authors’ respective—and diverse—approaches to the topic of noise. Although both reviewers find that all three writings resonate strongly with their own personal experiences, they seem to agree that Garrett Keizer’s book on the politics and history of noise is the most challenging and engaging.

Keizer’s book is “the rowdiest” of the three and “packed with crackling observations” according to Garner. Conover notes that it’s Keizer “who has really wrestled with the noise question and comes away with the most to say... [the] book was a succession of unexpected ideas about the links between noise, politics, and technology.”

In August 2010, Keizer also authored “Speaking of silence, and of noise” in the Los Angeles Times (reprinted the same month in the Vancouver Sun). In that article he suggests that absolute silence is not the goal, and silence should not come at the expense of sounds that give us pleasure—“music, joyousness, the human race itself... the vanishing sounds of nature.” The issue is one of choice and control: “As soon as one sound owns the neighborhood, it is less of a neighborhood. It is in danger of becoming the petty fiefdom of the person or corporation making the most noise.”

For those of us who cherish our right to quiet, the mere existence of these three new books— regardless of whether their authors’ respective philosophies may align with our own—can be seen as another step towards achieving the “sonic tipping point” that will spur meaningful political action around noise and the harm it causes.

Referenced links: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/18/books/18silence.html http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/books/review/Conover-t.htm
http://articles.latimes.com/2010/aug/01/opinion/la-oe-keizer-sound-20100801

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