LIS­TEN UP

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - JAMES M. KELLER

Can you hear me now? When oil slicks coat the Gulf of Mex­ico and arc­tic glaciers re­treat at an unimag­ined pace, when rivers catch fire and the sky glows red from fac­tory emis­sions — when such things hap­pen, peo­ple at least have a con­ver­sa­tion about what’s go­ing on. En­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion sur­rounds us, and al­though opin­ions may range wide about what should be done about it, only the most cal­lous prof­i­teer could ar­gue that it is a good thing.

Noise is also a pol­lu­tant, and a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous one; but for some rea­son it has failed to res­onate in the pub­lic’s col­lec­tive ear — per­haps be­cause the pub­lic is, lit­er­ally, grow­ing deaf. As with many forms of pol­lu­tants, noise is not a bad thing in its own right, no more than are, for ex­am­ple, the mol­e­cules of meth­ane that a cow may share with the uni­verse fol­low­ing its grassy lunch. It’s when it gets out of bal­ance that we have a prob­lem.

The ques­tion of noise pol­lu­tion has hardly man­aged to rate an aside in the on­go­ing de­bate over en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, but its time may be ar­riv­ing. In 2010, three books ap­peared al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously, voic­ing frus­tra­tion over the es­ca­lat­ing noise in our lives: In Pur­suit of Si­lence: Lis­ten­ing for Mean­ing in a World of Noise by Ge­orge Prochnik (in April, from Dou­ble­day); Zero Deci­bels: The Quest for Ab­so­lute Si­lence by Ge­orge Michelsen Foy (in May, from Scrib­ner); and The Un­wanted Sound of Ev­ery­thing We Want: A Book About Noise, by Gar­ret Keizer (also in May, from PublicAf­fairs Books). Such a sur­pris­ing co­in­ci­dence of pub­lish­ing sug­gests that noise is in the air. All three au­thors travel quite a lot of the same ter­ri­tory. They all want things to be less loud, and as they in­ves­ti­gate their topic, they trace a some­times par­al­lel tra­jec­tory of places that are noisy, places that are quiet, and places where sci­en­tists try to quan­tify what it all means.

Of the three, the most in­ti­mate in its ap­proach is Foy’s vol­ume. A FrenchAmer­i­can nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist, Foy ob­vi­ously passed his noise-tol­er­ance limit long ago, and he has re­acted by tak­ing the mat­ter per­son­ally. Of all the noises we en­counter in the course of this book, the most an­noy­ing is a whine that em­anates from the author him­self and, un­for­tu­nately, threat­ens to drown out some of the es­sen­tially good points he makes. One sus­pects that he was an un­happy per­son long be­fore he stood on the up­town sub­way plat­form at 79th Street and Broad­way on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per West Side and re­al­ized that the con­flu­ence of four screech­ing trains was, for him, in­tol­er­a­ble. He grows ob­ses­sive. He arms him­self with a deci­bel me­ter and mea­sures sound lev­els ev­ery­where he goes. It turns out he was right to rebel against the roar­ing screech of the sub­ways, which can reg­is­ter above 100 dB (deci­bels): dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory. He dis­plays a strand of New York provin­cial­ism that re­peat­edly frus­trates the reader: you might want to scream, “Get out of New York!” at him, were you not sym­pa­thetic to his sen­si­tiv­ity to scream­ing. Any­way, Foy does even­tu­ally ex­plore more silent climes — the Berk­shires, Cape Cod — but one senses that the dam­age has been ir­repara­ble and that he will never crack a smile.

His de­ci­sion to seek ab­so­lute si­lence seems rather a bizarre whim. The prob­lem is not that we should have no noise. A cer­tain amount of noise is just fine. A world with­out noise would be a world in which we didn’t speak, or sing, or chew, or walk, or any­thing. He wants to ex­pe­ri­ence it all the same, and that

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