In Praise of Silence


I have long been a lover of silence and quiet about it. It is this same love that is bound up with my passion for books. The writer Stefan Zweig once defined a book as a “handful of silence that assuages torment and unrest.”

While the world teems about me, drowning out the sounds of stillness with incessant noise, there is a notion of displacement, as though I wasn’t meant for these times of television sets, ipods, car alarms, cell phones, all day-every day music in stores, restaurants, office buildings, malls, and elevators. Why is it, I wondered, that silence is a diminishing natural resource, so alien to our way of life that its very existence seems to threaten the fabric of our culture? Why is it that we love noise, fear silence and evade a stillness that puts us in closer connection with things that give us happiness if we let them?

It is this concept, one I welcome with hushed gratitude, that forms a new book due to be released tomorrow: In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik.


seems to have made us
fall in love with noise
as a society.
It’s a torrid,
choppy affair
that we are often
in denial about,
or tend to
laugh off
as a bass-heavy,
summer night’s fling.”


It is a strange and intoxicating premise: to investigate the obscure root causes of our inability to be quiet. Like a form of narcissism, are we becoming consumed with a self-saturation of our own largely uninteresting cacophony? The author believes that we are, and that as we become noisier, we also lose touch with the many dimensions of silence itself, a silence that research suggests is as therapeutic–as essential–to the human animal as antibiotics or uncontaminated food.

Prochnik details with disturbing elegance the idea that Americans suffer enormously from noise pollution; insomnia, aggression, heart disease, even decreased longevity…the side-effects of enduring other people’s noise. It’s almost as if noise itself is a disease, a pathogen. And because of it, silence has become the most precious—and dwindling—commodity of our modern world, more than money, power, even happiness.

As readers of EA well know, I love anecdote. It so clearly explains in story what facts can often obscure. When the author was doing research for the book, he traveled with a police officer who was frequently called upon to intervene in domestic disputes. When the officer arrived, he usually found that the unhappy home was a raging cacophony of radios, TV’s, music all playing simultaneously–layer upon layer of mad noise used to prevent silence from arbitrating between the combatants. The officer tells the writer that in order to restore calm, he would ask the feuding combatants to turn off the appliances. He discovered that the near-homicidal atmosphere dissolved almost at once. They had, the officer explained, been arguing with noise itself rather than with each other.

It doesn’t take a sage to understand that those who have grasped solitude are the special emissaries to the tranquility of silence. Henry David Thoreau for one:


is the universal refuge,
the sequel to
all dull discourses
and all foolish acts,
a balm
to our
every chagrin,
as welcome
after satiety
as after


Photographer: Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Untitled, 1940.




~ by eaesthete on 04/05/10.

8 Responses to “In Praise of Silence”

  1. Excellent post, but I’m afraid for most of society it will fall on deaf ears (sorry, I couldn’t resist the really bad pun).

    I have a theory that all the noise and commotion provides a convenient excuse for many people to not have to engage with other humans too much or to get too “deep”. It’s a shame, really. My fellow Americans are unfortunately some of the worst offenders. All of the distraction from noise prevents people from really “living”, and hence, prevents them from connecting to some of the most enjoyable moments of being human.

    • John,

      It is rather well known that Americans are the greatest offenders. Who of us has not traveled out of the country and witnessed first hand loud and raucous behavior, only to discover it was our own countrymen at the source?

  2. And I whispered hallelujah and amen.

  3. Hurrah, hurrah!!! I chant within!!!

    ‘My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence.’ Edith Sitwell

    I couldn’t agree more…

  4. The photograph is a wow. I like what you have to say about silence. I adore it even though I make my living, talking, in sales. I adore coming home each night & lying down to read for a while, letting the silence restore my energy. If everyone gives me enough space, I am then ready to make their dinner!

  5. What can I say… that’s the reason I visit TEA, a respite for quiet thoughts in the bustles of everyday life. Coincidentally, I’ve been pondering about the very notion of solitude recently. It all began with William Deresiewicz’s article ‘Solitude and Leadership’, which sparked off a ‘trilogy’ of posts on the subject of aloneness. My thoughts about TEA-the recuperating effects of quiet solitude-reveals the nature of the author behind. Thank you for being and sharing yourself.

    • Arti,

      I do believe these blogs reveal more of ourselves than we know. Thank you for the link. There is much to learn about aloneness. One of the earliest posts I published and brought attention to, that still remains a favorite, was out of Atlantic Monthly on the “Caring for your Introvert.” It was received with much enthusiasm. Understandably so, I would think. This same shame skirts silence. I had read somewhere that those who speak in defense of it are generally regarded as party poopers and biddies, as though they’re incapable of joy.

  6. Thank you for the spot-on Atlantic article. The key notion I think is that for both introverts and extroverts, every person needs time to be alone. It’s just that it’s much easier and enjoyable for introverts.

    As for the link I tried to put in my last comment, apparently it did not quite do the job in linking. But here it is, my ‘trilogy’ of aloneness posts:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s