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Book Review

In Pursuit of Silence

by George Prochnik. Doubleday (2010). 342 pp.

Reviewed by A.Y. Fedorenko

In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik explores the nature of sound and noise, and of peace and quiet in both historical and current times. The author takes us on a journey where events and interviews are sprinkled generously with observations that are personal, cultural, historic, and even poetic (like the poetically beautiful Japanese tea ceremony). The result is a highly engaging book, replete with well-researched information on the many aspects of sound, noise and quiet.

Silence has many values. Quiet meditation enhances our ability to discriminate between important and unimportant stimuli, while the sounds of quiet – like trickling water or rustling leaves or songs of birds – nurture our sense of peace, compassion and imagination. Yet, while silence typically helped our predecessors to survive, the modern man seems to create noise to reassert his importance.

The rise in boom-cars in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s corresponds to the period when traffic congestion exploded. One theory suggests that as the traffic came to a halt, drivers began to feel caged up and got loud, and the noise-makers (boom boxes) became "a weapon of resistance against the system." This new noise became a form of self-assertion which began to threaten property boundaries – "The bigger the sound, the more territory you dominate."

The iPod phenomenon reveals the user's apparent need to filter out the many distractions from the digital-age noise (cell-phone chatter, loud sound devices, noise from digital games, etc.). This craving for extreme loudness through modern sound devices may in fact be driven by a created feeling of being "energized, free, fast", and protected from the barrage of noise surrounding us.

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Research on sound and human behaviour shows that loud, strong and fast music-beat may pump energy, as well as social conformity, into a given environment. During prehistoric times, wise men utilized the reverberations, echoes, amplifications and resonance in the caves to help induce a state of heightened emotion and minimal reasoning in their clan. In the modern world, "muzak" (soundtrack piped into malls, stores, restaurants and other public establishments) can be used to alter human behavior. For example, loud and fast music makes a store feel more energized, and the shoppers tend to move more quickly. Similarly, in restaurants, patrons exposed to faster, louder music tend to chew faster and spend significantly less time at a table, compared to patrons exposed to slower, softer music. Accordingly, chain restaurants utilize computerized sound systems where the tempo and volume of music can be cranked up to increase turn-over of tables.

Studies also show that the rate of alcohol consumption at public venues increases significantly as the sound level is cranked up – possibly because conversation becomes so difficult that it's is easier just to signal the bartender for another drink. Excessive noise may lead to hearing loss and other medical concerns. For example, studies on noise and language development suggest that the huge spike in the numbers of autistic children may be linked to the excessive noise that these youngsters experience since infancy. Another concern is that very loud sound levels increase the toxicity of the drug Ecstasy extensively at some teen parties.

We get a glimpse of the intricate world of commercial soundscaping where companies are hired to reduce noise in buildings, as well as products. For example, a soundscaping company was hired to develop a quieter sound for the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but with a challenge – the new sound had to retain the Harley's specific sound distinction. Similarly, the toning down of the luxury-car Jaguar's roar involved finding of a specific balance of "purr and roar."

The author also follows the individual pursuits for quiet – from one man's stubborn quest to build a totally noise-proof home, to one woman's spirited and successful campaign to achieve a quieter and kinder city environment. We are introduced into the world of deafness where cochlear implants make hearing increasingly possible, but where the inability to hear may still be valued when the noise from the "modern world" becomes overwhelming.

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In recent years, the ethics of noise control have changed, largely due to the high cost of noise abatement. The physical reduction of noise is now being replaced by sound manipulation to produce a "harmonized effect" – for example, for areas where traffic, bars, restaurants, and park space coexist within the same area. Findings from sensory and psycho-acoustic research are also being used: an attractive sound barrier is perceived to block noise be more effectively than an ugly one; water splashing over small irregular stones provides a more soothing sound compared to water falling on a metal grate.

Currently, a legislated move is underway in Europe to produce detailed noise-maps for its major cities in order to identify noise "hot-spots." Yet, while the focus is on producing these highly complex and expensive maps, the actual noise abatement is not addressed and noise reduction is not mandated. It is presumed that at some future date, a city politician could present such a visual noise map (along with specific evidence of noise-induced health hazards) to the European Union Committee and request financial help for noise reduction. Documented evidence on specific devastating effects of man-made noise on human health is available through the World Health Organization reports published by 2009. These data form the basis for the development of stringent guidelines on noise abatement.

Noise pollution, like air pollution, continues its upward trend. Despite the huge efforts already made (research on effects of noise on health, development of noise abatement measures, noise-mapping for European cities), the actual development of noise guidelines and their implementation have a long way to go before any results become evident.

In the end, forcibly silencing noisemakers may be far less effective than creating appealing environments where quietness may be cultivated and appreciated. This may mean creating more quiet spaces such as more "pocket-parks" in cities, and more quiet activities such as "silence moments" in a school day, or holding silent cultural and art events. Unless societies actively cultivate and promote silence, this precious commodity will be lost.

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